Ceres is now officially included the list of celestial bodies where we’ve found organic molecules. NASA’s Dawn scientists have spotted the presence of organic compounds on the dwarf planet using the spacecraft’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR). They found the organics covering an area measuring around 400 square miles in and around Ceres’ northern-hemisphere crater called Ernutet. They also found smaller patches of land with organics several miles east and west of Ernutet, as well as in another crater. That’s pretty abundant, considering Christopher Russell (Dawn’s principal investigator) said they weren’t “expecting to see something like this on the surface of Ceres” at all.
NASA still isn’t sure what the organics are exactly, but they gave off the same fingerprints as carbon-hydrogen bonds under near-infrared light and could include components like methyl and methylene. The scientists also believe that they’re native to Ceres, made on the dwarf planet itself and not transplanted there by meteorites or small asteroids. Carbonates and clays previously identified on Ceres apparently exhibit chemical activity in the presence of water and heat. That means the organics could have formed in a water-rich environment — and Dawn already proved that the giant asteroid is oozing with water.
Russell also said that the molecules are “pre-biological” and what scientists would expect “if Ceres was working its way along the complexity path.” They certainly make Ceres a life-friendly environment, so NASA is now considering the possibility that it’s hosting microbial life. In addition, this new discovery can help shed light on the “origins of water and organics on Earth,” pre-life chemistry that’s prevalent outside our planet.