The dwarf planet Ceres may seem to be little more than an asteroid. It has an inhospitable surface temperature of 100 degrees below zero by day and 225 below at night. But interest in the rocky, chilly little celestial body just heated up, reports Amina Khan for The Los Angeles Times. NASA’s Dawn mission has found evidence of organic molecules there.
In a new paper published in the journal Science, researchers describe organic compounds spotted by Dawn’s Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer instrument. The spectrometer can detect a range of wavelengths of light—some of which revealed the clear signatures of organic materials on the planet’s surface, especially in a crater called Ernutet.
The Dawn probe has been orbiting Ceres since 2015. It’s the inner solar system’s sole dwarf planet and the biggest object in the huge asteroid belt that sits between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres is a protoplanet—a body that seems to be slowly developing into a planet. That means that it’s a kind of look back in time for scientists, who hope to use their discoveries there to learn more about how other planets formed.
As Khan notes, it’s not yet clear what the organics are. The signature Dawn spotted appears to be one of aliphatic organic matter—chains of organic compounds similar to the carbon-based chemicals asphaltite and kerite. Those chemicals could be the mark of ancient life.