We Just Found New Evidence of Organic Alien Life on the Planet Ceres
The 2015 Dawn mission to explore the dwarf planet Ceres may not have turned up evidence of life, but it did find the next best thing: Organic compounds on the surface.
These molecules are the building blocks of life, and the fact that Ceres has abundant water ice means that the little planet might be a suitable host for life.
Even better news? Now, a new study reveals the amount of organics on Ceres' surface may actually be several times larger than we initially thought.
When the Dawn spacecraft orbited over Ceres, it used its Visible and Infrared (VIR) Spectrometer to gauge how much sunlight was being absorbed and reflected by different parts of the dwarf planet's surface, allowing it to get a sense of its composition.
When this information was compared to the spectrum of light reflected by organic material on Earth, the Dawn team estimated that "between 6 and 10 percent of the spectral signature they detected on Ceres could be explained by organic matter." Most of the organic material on Ceres seemed to be concentrated in relatively small patches in the northern hemisphere.
However, a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters takes issue with the previous findings. Instead of using organic material from Earth, the team compared the spectrometer readings on Ceres to those of a meteorite.
According to Hannah Kaplan, a researcher at the Southwest Research Institute:
"What we find is that if we model the Ceres data using extraterrestrial organics, which may be a more appropriate analog than those found on Earth, then we need a lot more organic matter on Ceres to explain the strength of the spectral absorption that we see there. We estimate that as much as 40 to 50 percent of the spectral signal we see on Ceres is explained by organics. That's a huge difference compared to the six to 10 percent previously reported based on terrestrial organic compounds."
Though organic material was found on Ceres, it doesn't mean for certain that life exists there—a lot of asteroids and comets, for example, have organic compounds, but can't support life.
Still, studying Ceres organics might help researchers and astrobiologists to find life on other planets, like the ones that might be hidden in the Alpha Centauri system.