Scientists study geology of Ceres to understand origin of organics

Simple organic molecules have been detected on the dwarf planet Ceres, adding to evidence it contains key ingredients essential for life.

The findings build on the growing body of research of what made Ceres, and what makes it tick.

Unfortunately, the scientists couldn't actually tell what the stuff is, just that it looks like aliphatic organic material. Scientists evaluated the geology of the regions to conclude that the organics are most likely native to the dwarf planet.

Sun Kwok, director of the Laboratory for Space Research at Hong Kong University, calls the work "exciting", saying it confirms the widespread presence of complex organics in the solar system.

What has the researchers so excited is that the organics found on Ceres do not appear to have come from an exterior source. Taken together, astronomers say that Ceres now has the ingredients and favorable conditions for life. The spectral similarity of the detected organics to ones found in carbonaceous chondrites suggest that we may find some intriguingly complex molecules if we send a probe to Ceres for a closer look. After all, telescope observations and up-close scrutiny have revealed that comets and some asteroids house organic material. They were found in high concentration near the 51-kilometer-wide crater Ernutet, in the northern hemisphere.

"What we've found on Ceres is probably the most unambiguous detection of organics on any Solar System body other than Earth", says Carlé Pieters, co-investigator on the Dawn mission.

In enhanced visible color images from Dawn's framing camera, the organic material is associated with areas that appear redder with respect to the rest of Ceres.

But with the discovery of organics on Ceres, scientists might be able to explain the origin, evolution, and distribution of organic species throughout the Solar System. Heat generated by an impact would likely have destroyed them, Marchi said, giving more credence to the idea that they formed on Ceres.

What they saw was that on Ceres's surface near the crater Ernutet (in the tradition of naming celestial objects after ancient gods and goddesses, this was the Egyptian goddess of fertility), there were signs of the right groups of methyl and methylene to support the presence of aliphatic compounds. Just a year ago, researchers found these molecules in Ceres's famous bright spots in Occator crater.

Organic compounds have already been detected on Mars and on comets, but Ceres could turn out to be something of a factory for certain molecules. If so, we might find molecules consistent with biology on the surface.

On Earth, scientists find carbonates and ammoniated molecules in hydrothermal environments, where hot water comes into contact with rock.

"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", Michael Küppers of the European Space Agency, who was not involved in the study, wrote in a commentary.

An global team of researchers led by the European Space Agency (ESA) has discovered that Ceres is now a candidate for sustaining alien life. But these findings do help scientists better understand the distribution of organic material throughout the solar system, which will ultimately help them better understand how life could evolve elsewhere.

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