Based on evidence that organic molecules can exist in meteorites, researchers analyzed and found organic compounds within some regions of Ceres, the dwarf planet that inhabits the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The compounds were absorption bands, known to appear alongside aliphatic organic structures. Apparently, the compounds formed on Ceres added to previous evidence show it is likely that the dwarf planet experienced a “complex prebiotic chemistry” period at some point in its history.

It came as a surprise for scientists that after 4.5 billion years, there are only small impact craters on Ceres’ surface, while larger ones have disappeared. Image Credit: NASA

More evidence of life in space

By analyzing data provided by the Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer aboard the Dawn spacecraft, researchers concluded that there was evidence of organic absorption. The compounds are characteristic of aliphatic organic matter, aliphatic being one of the two main classes of hydrocarbons, as it includes propane and polyethylene.

These were found in a region near the Ernutet crater, which is 50-kilometer wide. Also, because the composition of Ceres includes ammonia-based hydrated minerals, water ice, salts, and carbonates. It is considered to have experienced “favorable environments to prebiotic chemistry at some point.”

Dawn highlighted the areas with the compounds in a 385-square-mile region, but scientists suggest that there may be more such areas, seeing that Dawn has only analyzed Ceres’ middle latitudes, which would be those between 60 degrees north and 60 degrees south. Also, it is possible that there are additional organic compounds just below the detection limits, so there are a lot of expectations for what Dawn may find in the future.

It seems that Dawn’s measurements are not precise enough to determine exactly what kind of organic compounds are those found on the surface, although the results appear to indicate an association with tar-like substances, among which lie asphaltite and kerite, as researchers suggest.

“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,” stated Michael Küppers from the European Space Astronomy Centre on this month’s issue of Science magazine.

Küppers also suggests that Ceres joins Mars and other satellites to the list of astronomical locations that may be able to harbor life.

The characteristics of Ceres that make it possible to harbor life are shared by other celestial bodies, including chondritic or carbonaceous meteorites, although the discovery became the first clear detection of organic molecules from orbit on a belt body.

Another promising fact is that it’s likely that the compounds formed on Ceres, seeing that the organic areas of the surface are made of Ceres’ endogenous composition, and an asteroid strike would have destroyed the compounds.

Currently, Dawn is orbiting Ceres by coursing an elliptical orbit at a minimal altitude of 4,670 miles. On February 23 it is expected to reach an altitude of 12,400 miles, passing to a different orbital plane. Eventually, Dawn will survey Ceres as the sun is set directly behind the spacecraft, allowing the dwarf planet to reflect higher amounts of light.

Source: Science