Life’s Building Blocks Found On Dwarf Planet Ceres

Carbon’s ability to bond in so many ways allows for the formation of the complex molecules needed for biology. This is the amino acid L-isoleucine, used by the body to build proteins.

Organic molecules — those made primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms — are essential for life as we know it.  Carbon is the coolest, most special atom of all. Not only can it link in multiple ways to other atoms, but it happily links with itself to form incredibly complex molecules, the kind that make proteins and bodies possible. And while organic compounds alone don’t necessarily mean a living thing, finding them in meteorites, Mars, Titan and now on the dwarf planet Ceres, gives us hope that all the necessary ingredients for life were readily available to the young Earth at the dawn of the solar system.

This enhanced color composite image, made with data from the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows the area around the 32-mile-wide Ernutet crater. The bright red portions appear redder with respect to the rest of Ceres. In a 2017 study in the journal Science, researchers from the Dawn science team found that thw red areas around Ernutet are associated with organic material. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Scientists at NASA’s Dawn mission recently announced finding evidence for organic material on Ceres, a dwarf planet and the largest body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. They used the spacecraft’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR), an instrument that detect the “fingerprints” of materials by studying the light they reflect from the sun, to find carbon-containing compounds around the northern-hemisphere crater called Ernutet.

The discovery, the first on a main asteroid belt object, adds to the growing list of bodies in the solar system where organics have been found. Ceres resembles the group of space rocks called carbonaceous chondrites which are rich in water and organics, strengthening the connection between the dwarf planets and these dark, crumbly meteorites we occasionally find here on Earth. This

A slice of the Allende meteorite, that fell to Earth in 1969. Allende is a carbonaceous chondrite that originated on an asteroid that once contained water. Water delivered by way of asteroids appears a likely way for our planet to have re-stocked its supply after its initial formation as a blazing hot ball of magma. Credit: Matteo Chinellato

Previously, scientists had identified carbonates (which form in water), water ice and clays on Ceres as well as evidence of heat in the formation of the dwarf planet’s tallest mountain, Ahuna Mons, a likely volcano made of oozing mud. Salts and sodium carbonate, such as those found in the bright areas of Occator Crater, are also thought to have been carried to the surface by liquid.

Dwarf planet Ceres is the largest object in the solar system’s main asteroid belt, with a diameter of 590 miles (950 km). Ceres is seen here in approximately true color photographed on May 4, 2015 by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA-JPL-Caltech-UCLA-MPSDLRIDA-Composition: Justin Coward

The organic materials on Ceres are mainly located in an area covering approximately 400 square miles (about 1,000 square kilometers). The new-found organic materials cover about 400 square miles (~1,000 sq. km) and spread across the floor of Ernutet, its southern rim and an area just outside the crater to the southwest. Organics also were found in a very small area in Inamahari Crater, about 250 miles (400 km) away from Ernutet. Scientists could not say exactly what kind of organic material Dawn picked up, just that it looked like a variety that have straight chains of carbon atoms instead of being arranged in rings.

Dawn is now in a stretched-out elliptical orbit at Ceres, going from an altitude of 4,670 miles (7,520 km) up to almost 5,810 miles (9,350 km). On Feb. 23, it will make its way to a new altitude of around 12,400 miles (20,000 km), about the height of GPS satellites above Earth, and to a different orbital plane. This will put the probe in a position to study Ceres from a completely new perspective. Who knows what we’ll find?