Organic compounds found on the dwarf planet Ceres

Area around Ernutet Crater. In pink the organic materials (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF)
Area around Ernutet Crater. In pink the organic materials (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF)

An article published in the journal “Science” describes the detection of organic materials on the dwarf planet Ceres. A team of researchers coordinated by Maria Cristina De Sanctis of the National Institute for Astrophysics, Italy, used data collected by the VIR spectrometer of NASA’s Dawn space probe to identify aliphatic compounds, one of the two classes of organic materials.

Since it went into the dwarf planet Ceres’ orbit, the Dawn space probe has been making a series of flights at different heights and of detections with its instruments. Among them there’s the VIR spectrometer provided by the Italian Space Agency, which allowed to achieve this result by identifying the characteristic “signature” of aliphatic compounds in particular in the area near Ernutet Crater but also in other areas more distant and smaller. For example, they were found in Inamahari Crater, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) away from Ernutet.

Maria Cristina De Sanctis defined them the most marked evidence of the presence of aliphatic organic molecules on a celestial body beyond Earth from space mission data. For this reason, it’s an important discovery regarding an area of ​​the dwarf planet Ceres area of ​​about 1,000 square kilometers (about 400 square miles). These compounds can be considered the building blocks of molecules connected to biological processes.

An important element of this research concerns the origin of that concentration of organic materials. Possible causes are their arrival due to the impact of another celestial body rich with those materials or their formation on the dwarf planet Ceres. These compounds are delicate so an impact would have destroyed them. The researchers think that it’s more likely that they are the result of chemical processes occurring due to hydrothermal activity discovered on Ceres.

The importance of this discovery is even higher when associated with others such as those of phyllosilicates, ammoniated compounds, water and the highest distribution of carbonates yet discovered beyond Earth. For these reasons, the article in “Science” mentions the possibility that a complex prebiotic chemistry existed at some point in the history of Ceres in an environment that favored it.

It must be said that all this is very far from the discovery of traces of life and it’s unlikely that there there might be any on the dwarf planet Ceres. However, this research confirms even more that in places where there are the right elements and there’s enough energy to generate chemical activities, complex compounds can form.

The Dawn space probe is continuing its observations of the dwarf planet Ceres. In the coming days, it will reach a position that in the coming months will allow to see Ceres with the Sun behind the spacecraft, optimal conditions for observing it. Researchers can look forward to more news.

Ernutet Crater (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
Ernutet Crater (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *