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Dwarf planet Ceres, close to Mars, could sustain life

The study of a dwarf planet close to Mars could offer pivotal insights in the quest to discover extraterrestrial life, given the extensive amount of organic material present on it.

Complex organic compounds 

Located in the asteroid belt that sits between Mars and Jupiter, the planet known as Ceres is highly intriguing for researchers worldwide. This planet seems to have garnered an array of complex organic compounds from the asteroids around it.

While the existence of these organic compounds on Ceres was first identified in 2017 via the Dawn spacecraft, recent research suggests their presence might be even more widespread than anticipated.

Initial discovery 

Discussing the initial discovery, Terik Daly, lead author and planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory reported that “the organics were initially detected in the vicinity of a large impact crater, which is what motivated us to look at how impacts affect these organics.” 

“We are finding that organics may be more widespread than first reported and that they seem to be resilient to impacts with Ceres-like conditions.”

Elements of life

Considering the significant organic material on Ceres, combined with indications of its substantial water ice content, experts believe that the planet might have the essential elements to foster life beyond Earth.

“Although researchers have performed impact and shock experiments on various types of organics in the past, what was missing was a study dedicated to the type of organics detected on Ceres using the same type of analytical method used by the Dawn spacecraft to detect them,” Daly said, emphasizing the value of comparative analysis of the organic data derived from the dwarf planet.

New evidence

“By capitalizing on the strengths of two different datasets collected over Ceres, we’ve been able to map potential organic-rich areas on Ceres at higher resolution,” added co-author Juan Rizos, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland

“We can see a very good correlation of organics with units from older impacts and with other minerals like carbonates that also indicate the presence of water. While the origin of the organics remains poorly understood, we now have good evidence that they formed in Ceres and likely in the presence of water.”

Study implications 

The potential astrobiological implications of the research are substantial. “There is a possibility that a large interior reservoir of organics may be found inside Ceres. So, from my perspective, that result increases the astrobiological potential of Ceres,” Rizos said.

Discoveries like the one on Ceres underscore the significant role of organic material in the searth for life in space. This is exemplified by the recent discovery of organic material on Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The implications of such findings, especially in relation to Mars, are vast. “They are an exciting clue for astrobiologists since they are often thought of as building blocks of life,” concluded Joseph Razzell Hollis, a postdoctoral fellow at London’s Natural History Museum.

The study was presented at the Geological Society of America’s GSA Connects 2023 meeting on October 17.

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