The dwarf planet of Ceres could have the necessary building blocks of life. Scientists now think the planet may be home to alien life. Launched in September 2007, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft mission is to study the dwarf planets of Vesta and Ceres. With the spacecraft, scientists were able to see organic molecules, the building blocks of known life. The study was published in the journal Science.
Ceres is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is the largest object there with a diameter of almost 600 miles. It is made of rock and ice and has its own gravity. First discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801, Ceres was once a planet but was reclassified in 1850. Costing $467 million dollars, the Dawn mission first visited Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012 before traveling on to Ceres. The spacecraft arrived at the dwarf planet in March 2015 and became the first spacecraft to orbit two different bodies other than the Earth and the Moon.
According to Space.com, the organic molecule is most likely native, meaning they formed on the dwarf planet rather than arriving by asteroid or comet strikes, as with other molecules on other planets. Michael Kuppers, European Space Astronomy (ESA) planetary scientist said to Space.com that being a dwarf planet, Ceres could still be holding onto internal heat from when it formed, and may even have an ocean below the surface. This opens the chance that Ceres could have developed primitive life. Ceres joins other planets throughout the solar system that could have life.
During its mission, the spacecraft not only found organic molecules, but “bizarre bright spots on crater floors,” an ice volcano, and water below the surface near the poles, according to Space.com. Using the spacecraft’s spectrometer, the carbon-containing molecules are near Ceres’ Ernutet and Inamahari craters. Currently, the scientists are searching Ceres’ middle latitudes for more areas with carbon-containing molecules. Maria Cristina De Sanctis, the lead author, said the team cannot rule other locations that may have organic materials. Unfortunately, the spacecraft’s measurements are not “precise enough” to identify the molecules, but they have signifiers that are similar to kerite and asphaltite.
The researchers are excited about the find on the “complex and intriguing world.” Ceres, they said, is similar to Europa and Enceladus. With Dawn’s help, researchers are finding compounds on Ceres that have also been discovered in the plume of Enceladus.
By Cheryl Werber
Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA