Home-Grown Organic Materials Discovered On The Surface Of Ceres

The Occator Crater, one of the many amazing pictures Dawn has taken of Ceres. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres continues to be a fascinating world, exceeding the expectations of astronomers. The latest news from the dwarf planet is the discovery of organic materials on its surface.

In a paper published in Science, an international team has identified an organic-rich area in the Northern hemisphere of Ceres, near the Ernutet Crater. The region is about 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) and is rich in aliphatic carbons.

The type of organic materials found includes methane and several types of common hydrocarbons, which are of importance as they are considered to be the precursor molecules to amino acids, the building blocks of life.

Aliphatic compounds are also relatively fragile, so observing them implies they were actually formed on the dwarf planet and didn’t come from another body. This idea is strengthened by the fact that the compounds would have a different distribution across the surface of Ceres.

“This is the first time that this signature has been seen so clearly on an asteroid and other airless bodies,” lead author Maria Chiara De Sanctis said in a press briefing from the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF). "Organics have also been seen on comets, but it was not easily identifiable with a specific kind of organic."

The high-precision of this discovery comes from the tremendous capability of VIRMS, the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, housed onboard NASA’s Dawn probe, which is currently exploring Ceres. The instrument was also responsible for the discovery of other molecules and compounds.

It turns out Ceres is also rich in ammonia, carbonates, salts, and water ice. The combined presence of these chemicals, and the new discovery of organics, suggests that the dwarf planet is a favorable environment for prebiotic chemistry to take place.

Ceres, which has been studied by Dawn for two years, is the largest body in the asteroid main belt and a unique world of salt volcanos and disappearing ice volcanos. Dawn will continue to study it, and, when the mission ends, will become a perpetual satellite of Ceres as it’s in a very stable orbit around the dwarf planet.

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