Dwarf planet Ceres contains the necessary ingredients for life, new data suggest.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has detected organic compounds on Ceres — the first concrete proof of organics on an object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. This material probably originated on the dwarf planet itself, the researchers report in the Feb. 17 Science. The discovery of organic compounds, the building blocks of life, adds to the growing body of evidence that Ceres may have once had a habitable environment.
“We’ve come to recognize that Ceres has a lot of characteristics that are intriguing for those looking at how life starts,” says Andy Rivkin, a planetary astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., who was not involved in the study.
The Dawn probe has previously detected salts, ammonia-rich clays and water ice on Ceres, which together indicate hydrothermal activity, says study coauthor Carol Raymond, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
For life to begin, you need elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, as well as a source of energy. Both the hydrothermal activity and the presence of organics point toward Ceres having once had a habitable environment, Raymond says.
“If you have an abundance of…