A new study led by scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has found evidence for of carbon-based materials on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres.
Scientists analysed data from NASA's Dawn spacecraft and found that the surface of the planet, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, contains a good amount of organic material - the same ingredients that helped create life on Earth.
Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt. Due to its huge size, Ceres is also considered a dwarf planet (or protoplanet). It has a diameter of 945 kilometres, and is the 33rd-largest known body in the solar system. Ceres is estimated to account for about one-third of the mass of the entire asteroid belt.
In September 2007, NASA launched the Dawn spacecraft to collect more information about Ceres and Vesta (another protoplanet in the asteroid belt). Dawn entered the orbit around Ceres in March 2015, and sent a large number of high-resolution images of two protoplanets in next three years, before finally retiring in November 2018.
"Ceres is like a chemical factory," said Dr Simone Marchi, a scientist at SwRI and the lead author of the study.
"Among inner solar system bodies, Ceres' has a unique mineralogy, which appears to contain up to 20 per cent carbon by mass in its near surface. Our analysis shows that carbon-rich compounds are intimately mixed with products of rock-water interactions, such as clays."
Dawn had earlier revealed the presence of water and some volatile compounds such as ammonium on Ceres. In the current study, scientists used Dawn data in combination with geophysical, collisional and compositional models and found that fluid processes in the past altered the interior of Ceres.
The Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometre on board Dawn spacecraft suggested presence of carbonates, phyllosilicates, and spectrally neutral darkening agents, such as magnetite on this asteroid. Scientists also found evidence for another darkening agent, most likely amorphous carbon, on Ceres' surface.
Scientists believe that the composition of about 50-60 per cent of Ceres' upper crust may be similar to primitive carbonaceous chondrite meteorites.
All these findings infer that either Ceres accreted carbon-rich matter in the past or carbon was already concentrated in its crust.
"Both potential scenarios are important, because Ceres' mineralogical composition indicates a global-scale event of rock-water alteration, which could provide conditions favourable to organic chemistry," Marchi added.
The findings of the study are published in journal Nature Astronomy.
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