Ceres' homemade organic materials

by Mary Caperton Morton
Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Researchers analyzing data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft have found signs of organic compounds that arose on the surface of Ceres, a dwarf planet one-fourth the diameter of our moon in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The compounds' origins may provide clues about how life on Earth got started.

Dawn has been orbiting Ceres since March 2015, collecting data from the dwarf planet’s surface. Above the 50-kilometer-wide Ernutet Crater, the spacecraft detected spectra, or wavelengths of light, associated with organic hydrocarbons on Earth, a team led by Maria Cristina de Sanctis of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics reported in Science. The organics were concentrated mostly near the relatively young crater, but they are also distributed outside Ernutet and in an older degraded crater nearby, suggesting they were not delivered to Ceres by the external impactor that created Ernutet. Rather, the materials are likely native to Ceres, the team suggested, possibly created by thermal processes taking place in the interior of Ceres itself.

Previous studies have shown that rocky and icy Ceres is hydrothermally active, possibly hosting an internal ocean of liquid water. Water vapor has been detected spewing from the dwarf planet, hinting at ongoing activity under the seemingly dormant surface. Such emissions may play a role in bringing organic materials to the surface, the team noted, suggesting that further investigation might provide clues as to whether organic materials could have been similarly created on Earth.

“This discovery of a locally high concentration of organics [on Ceres] is intriguing, with broad implications for the astrobiology community,” said study co-author Simone Marchi of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., in a statement. “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.”

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