NASA's Dawn spacecraft has spotted organic molecules on dwarf planet Ceres raising the likelihood of finding signs of life in this extraterrestrial world.

Carbon-Containing Materials Found On Ceres

In a study published in the journal Science on Feb. 16, scientists revealed that the spacecraft detected carbon-containing materials on Ceres similar to what may have been the building blocks for life on our home planet.

Data from Dawn hinted of organic materials near the 31-mile-wide crater in the northern hemisphere of the dwarf planet. Scientists said that although the exact molecular compounds in these organics have not been identified, they matched tar-like minerals such as asphaltite and kerite.

"This discovery of a locally high concentration of organics is intriguing, with broad implications for the astrobiology community," said Simone Marchi, from Southwest Research Institute.

"Ceres has evidence of ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, salts, and now organic materials. With this new finding Dawn has shown that Ceres contains key ingredients for life."

Organic Material Not Brought By A Comet Or Asteroid Strike

Based on the location and type of organics found on the dwarf planet, the organic materials appear to be native, possibly forming on Ceres instead of arriving there via a comet or an asteroid strike.

The intense heat produced by an asteroid or a comet striking Ceres would have also destroyed the organics boosting the theory that the molecules that Dawn detected are native to Ceres.

Researchers said that these organics may have formed via reactions that involve hot water. The hydrothermal activity and aqueous alteration that likely produced these organics would have taken place underground although scientists are not yet sure how the organics that were formed in the asteroid's interior could go up to the surface and leave the signatures that were detected by Dawn spacecraft.

"Data returned by the Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer on board the Dawn spacecraft show a clear detection of an organic absorption feature at 3.4 micrometers on dwarf planet Ceres," Marchi and colleagues wrote.

"This signature is characteristic of aliphatic organic matter and is mainly localized on a broad region of ~1000 square kilometers close to the ~50-kilometer Ernutet crater."

Life Beyond Earth

The discovery places Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, in the list of places in the solar system that are of interest to scientists for finding signs of life beyond Earth. Included in this list are planet Mars and the ocean-bearing moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

Dawn lead scientist Christopher Russell, from the University of California Los Angeles, said that the organic molecules are a long way from microbial life but the discovery does encourage researchers to explore Ceres further.

The rock-and-ice world measuring about 590 miles in diameter is located about three times farther from the sun than Earth. Dawn, which has been orbiting Ceres for nearly two years, has earlier spotted bright spots on the crater floors and ice volcano — evidence that the object was once an ocean world.

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