Water vapor has been spotted around Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, indicating it has potential for alien life. A NASA spacecraft is already on its way to the planet, so it won’t be long before we find out whether in fact astrobiological or alien life is possible or not.
First spotted more than two centuries ago, in 1801, Ceres was originally classified as our solar system’s largest asteroid. But because it is very large – about 590 miles in diameter – it was reclassified by the International Astronomical Union as a “dwarf planet” in 2006. It is the biggest object orbiting in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, and is round, just like Planet Earth.
Scientists have studied, and been fascinated by the little planet for a very long time. This is largely because the thick blanket of ice that covers its surface would produce more water than all of the water on Earth if it melted. The existence of water vapor also indicates that there is some sort of atmosphere on the dwarf planet.
Significant “plumes of water vapor” were spotted recently by scientists via the infrared space telescope that has been set up by the European Space Agency (ESA) at the Herschel Space Observatory. The telescope is one of a kind, incorporating the biggest single mirror that has ever been used for a space telescope. More than 11 feet in diameter, it enables the observatory to achieve an incredible spectral range from sub-millimeters (minute fractions of inches) to “far infrared.”
According to Michael Küppers from the ESA in Spain, this is the first proof that there is water vapor on anything in the asteroid belt, including Ceres. It “provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere,” he said.
Küppers is the lead author of an article published in the latest issue of Nature magazine, that discusses the “localized sources of water vapour” detected on Ceres. They were seen when the dwarf planet was “at its closest point to the sun,” he said.
Commenting on the fact that Ceres has its own atmosphere, he said that it wasn’t the same as the atmosphere on earth because most water “escapes into space”. This is because of low gravity.
“I do not expect a stable atmosphere,” he said.
Carol Raymond who works in the NASA jet propulsion lab located in Pasadena, California, said she was very excited by the finding. An investigator working on the Dawn spacecraft that is currently headed towards Ceres, she said the dwarf planet could be a good place for astrobiological (or alien) life potential. If it is possible they will find out when Dawn gets there. The spacecraft has spent over a year orbiting Vesta, a very large asteroid, and should reach Ceres in spring next year.
Raymond is hoping that “cryo-volcanism” will be evident when Dawn gets to Ceres. This presents in the form of weak geysers that spew water off the surface and would mean that the spacecraft would be able to fly through the vapor. It won’t be able to fly that close if there is just ice.
According to Küppers’ article, the water vapor seen around the dwarf planet originated from “localized sources” that appear to link to “mid-latitude regions” that exist on the planet’s surface. He estimated that about 1026 molecules of vapor were produced every second. Evaporation of the water might be due to “comet-like sublimation or to cyro-volcanism,” he said. This is when volcanoes don’t erupt the usual molten rocks, but rather some type of volatile matter, like water.
According to NASA, most scientists are convinced that Ceres has a core of rock covered by thick ice. They also believe that the materials the dwarf planet is composed of date to before the formation of the solar system planets, and that Ceres itself was formed during “the first million years” of the solar system.
Chief engineer of Dawn, and its mission director, Marc Rayman is intrigued by the idea of liquid water (rather than just ice) existing on Ceres. Since all life as we know it is dependent on water, “this is part of the larger question of where can life exist,” he said.
While Rayman is not convinced that microbial life could exist on Ceres, he believes it may be an excellent place to learn more the formation of life. Ceres might even turn out to be a place “that life has formed.”
Ultimately life requires a lot more than just water, he said, including an energy source and nutrients. So it’s “too early to say” whether any form of life exists on the dwarf planet, and this of course includes any form of alien life.
By Penny Swift