Tags: life | dwarf | planet | ceres

Life on Dwarf Planet Ceres? Maybe, There's Evidence of Water

Thursday, 23 Jan 2014 07:00 AM

By Michael Mullins

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Life on the dwarf planet Ceres – the largest asteroid in the inner Solar System – might be a possibility considering scientists have recently found evidence of the existence of water through vapors on the celestial body.

The discovery was made at the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory via a sensitive HIFI infrared detector telescope through which scientists observed the spectral signature of water vapor that appeared to be emanating from two dark area's on Ceres' surface, NBC News reported.

"This is what you might call the 'smoking gun,'" Mark Sykes, CEO and director of the Arizona-based Planetary Science Institute, told NBC News.

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"The implications could be huge for the future of astrobiology and planetary exploration," added Sykes, who did not participate in the European Space Agency's discovery, which will be published in February's journal Nature.

Next year, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is scheduled to begin orbiting the dwarf planet as part of a $466 million mission, which scientists hope will provide further details as to the origins of the water vapors on Ceres and whether not subsurface liquid water, and perhaps even traces of life, exist on the massive asteroid.

There are presently two main theories as to where the vapors are emanating from.

Researchers believe one possible source could be a comet-like layer of surface ice that surrounds Ceres, the second is the existence of volcanoes that eject ice instead of lava, NBC News reported.

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"The cryovolcanism hypothesis requires a warm interior, and it is possible there is a layer of water (subsurface ocean) somewhere," ESA's Michael Küppers told NBC News in an email. "In the cometary sublimation scenario, there is 'just' an ice layer that is locally close to the surface and heated by the sun. In this case, there may be conditions for liquid water somewhere in the interior as well, if pressure and temperature happen to be right."

Ceres, which has an orbital period of 1,680 days on the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, has a diameter of 590 miles and was named after the Roman Goddess of agriculture by the man who discovered it, astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, an Italian Catholic priest and mathematician.

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