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NASA finds the building blocks of life on Ceres

NASA finds the building blocks of life on Ceres

In its latest findings of the dwarf planet Ceres courtesy of the Dawn spacecraft, NASA is reporting that the surface of the asteroid contains organic materials that – under the right circumstances – could lead to life.

The findings were recently published in the journal Science, and they confirmed the presence of materials containing carbon-hydrogen bonds. From a distance researchers can’t really get much more accurate, but they do see the signs of organic material.

To be clear, the results don’t mean that Ceres has life on it, just that it has some of the materials that could lead to the formation of life. That not only helps us to understand how the solar system was formed, it gives us a better understanding of what to look for throughout the universe for signs of more complex forms of life.

“We were not expecting to see something like this on the surface of Ceres,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator and the study’s coauthor . These simple molecules, he added, are “really pre-biological, but they’re in the family of materials that we would expect if Ceres was working its way along the complexity path.”

Although it was originally discovered in 1801, it’s only been within the last few years that Ceres has gone from being the trivia question answer at a quiz for astronomers to a household name. Maybe not every household, but enough. The Dawn spacecraft made the object headline news in 2015, as it gave us our first close up look at the dwarf planet.

Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, and the largest dwarf planet inside the orbit of Jupiter. The internal structure is also a major question, with many believing there is a sub-surface icy ocean present. There are also indications that there is a thin water vapor atmosphere, all of which is relevant to the discussion of Ceres potential for hosting life.

“The combined presence on Ceres of ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, salts, and organic material indicates a very complex chemical environment, suggesting favorable environments to prebiotic chemistry,” the study states.

The discovery also raises the question of how the materials got there. One theory is that they could have reached Ceres due to passing comets or other asteroids that collided with the dwarf planet. The problem with that theory is that the organic materials would likely have been destroyed by that same impact.

Instead, the researchers responsible for the recent findings suggest that they may have originated on Ceres itself. That is still very much a theory at the moment though, but it makes the dwarf planet even more intriguing.

What this all means is that Ceres has gone from a mostly unknown rock in the asteroid belt to one the most appealing objects in the solar system for further exploration. Given that the Dawn spacecraft is still in orbit, NASA probably won’t be looking to return to Ceres for several years to come, but there is a planned mission from the Chinese Space Agency in the 2020s that would retrieve samples and send the data back to the Earth.

Expect to hear a lot more about Ceres in the years to come.

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