In what could be the biggest development yet in the search for life outside our planet, NASA has announced their Dawn mission has discovered organic material on the dwarf planet Ceres. The Dawn spacecraft was launched in YEAR to study several objects in the asteroid belt that stretches between Mars and Jupiter which includes Ceres and the minor planet Vesta. While organic matter has been previously detected on smaller meteorites and asteroids, this marks the first time that organic compounds have been found on a body which might generate its own heat.
Ceres has a diameter of roughly 600 miles (1000 km) and belongs to the diverse group of objects known as cis-Neptunian objects which include dwarf planets and other bodies too small to be planets but too large to be asteroids or meteors. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft took infrared spectrography data of a massive crater called Ernutet in Ceres’ northern hemisphere and detected several different carbon-based compounds which are thought to be possible indicators of life-sustaining conditions.
According to their publication in Science, the researchers believe the evidence instead points to a theory that Ceres has a substantial amount of internal hydrothermal activity which could create warm environments near the dwarf planet’s core:
[...] we expect that Ceres is a perfect world to develop substantial indigenous organic material formed by hydrothermal alteration, given the widespread presence of other hydrothermal products.
The combination of heat, carbonates, and water could be the perfect stew for creating alien life. Or it could simply be mud volcanoes. The researchers were quick to note that there could be another extra-planetary origin for the organic material, such as a cometary impact or small asteroid strike. However, the concentration of organic methyl, methylene, and other carbonates is far too high for those scenarios; the heat of an impact would have likely burned up a much higher volume of any organic compounds. Since Ceres is already the site of mysterious bright spots which flash and dim regularly, the volcano hypothesis seems likely.
Could this be one of the first signs of possible life in our solar system? Let’s hope so. The Dawn spacecraft will remain in orbit around Ceres for some time, rising to new altitudes in order to gain a better picture of the overall conditions on the dwarf planet. Time will tell what Ceres has in store for the search for life in this mysterious universe.