Researchers have detected organic compounds on the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Organic compounds are the building blocks of life on Earth, and the discovery could mean "that primitive life could have developed on Ceres," Michael Küppers, a planetary scientist with the European Space Agency, writes in a commentary piece published today in Science.
The organic compounds were detected by the Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer on the Dawn spacecraft, which was launched by NASA in 2007 and has been orbiting Ceres since 2015. Previous studies had found salt and ammonia to be present on the dwarf planet. And Dawn and other telescopes had detected water ice and carbonates. All these compounds could theoretically lead to life.
“Ceres has evidence of ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, salts, and now organic materials,” Simone Marchi, a senior research scientist at Southwest Research Institute, and one of the authors of the paper published in Science, said in a statement. “With this new finding Dawn has shown that Ceres contains key ingredients for life.”
The organic compounds were found in high concentration near the 32-mile-wide crater Ernutet, in the dwarf planet’s northern hemisphere. Scientists don’t know the exact molecular compounds that were detected, but they seem to be in the same groups that make up tar-like minerals here on Earth.
The researchers also think that the compounds were generated on Ceres, instead of being brought there by an asteroid or comet. The compounds wouldn’t have survived such a powerful, high-heat impact, the study says, but it’s not fully understood how exactly they moved from inside the planet to the surface.
Ceres is believed to have formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and understanding its mineral composition — and whether the planet harbors life — can help scientists better understand how life developed on our planet. This latest study shows that Ceres is a top contender, beyond Mars, for finding alien life in our Solar System.