Concentrations of an organic compound have been found on the dwarf planet Ceres.
Organic compounds have been found on asteroids before, but this is the clearest signal we have seen and scientists are getting pretty excited about this discovery because of the chemical composition of Ceres.
The Dawn spacecraft located the concentrations after exploring the asteroid belt since 2015. Maria Cristina De Sanctis of the INAF Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology, Italy, announced the findings after working with NASA on the project. The discovery was made using the Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft.
“Ceres has evidence of ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, salts, and now organic materials. With this new finding Dawn has shown that Ceres contains key ingredients for life.” Simone Marchi, Senior research scientist at Southwest Research Institute.
Finding organics is not necessarily a surprise as they have been seen previously on main-belt asteroids 24 Themis and 65 Cybele. The signal from Ceres, however, is far stronger than all of the others have been in the past. The organics were found spread out over a 50km wide crater called Ernutet. Smaller deposits were found near Inamahari Crater. The material was found over a 1000km range that indicated the matter probably didn’t come from an impact.
“Because Ceres is a dwarf planet that may still preserve internal heat from its formation period and may even contain a subsurface ocean. This opens the possibility that primitive life could have developed on Ceres itself.” Planetary scientist Michael Kuppers from the European Space Agency.
Whilst we can’t actually tell what the organic material is yet, we can speculate that it looks like aliphatic organic material. Compounds are usually split into aliphatic and aromatic types, with aromatic compounds having molecular rings of carbon atoms. Aliphatic compounds will generally have straight chains of carbon atoms and will have been far less affected by heat and radiation.
So if we’ve found organic material before, why is this find so significant?
Firstly, Ceres has huge deposits of water ice and various other chemical ingredients such as carbonates and salts. With organic material on the surface, this could be a promising environment for prebiotic chemistry.
Secondly, the organics aren’t thought to have been delivered by impact. The distribution of the organic material suggests that the compounds could be native to the dwarf planet. This would be huge news as we would have proof that organic material developed in other parts of the solar system.
Scientists will continue to explore the asteroid belt and you can expect further discussion on the importance of these finds. This could be the proof that life evolved or is evolving outside of our own planet.