Fresh Data From NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Suggests There May Be An Abundant Amount Of Organic Matter On Ceres

Scientists are now trying to learn how the organic material arrived on dwarf planet Ceres.

Data from NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows a large amount of organic material on dwarf planet Ceres.
NASA / AP Images

Scientists are now trying to learn how the organic material arrived on dwarf planet Ceres.

After sifting through large amounts of data collected from NASA’s Dawn mission, scientists have determined that the dwarf planet Ceres may have an abundant amount of organic material on its surface.

As Science Daily report, the surprise announcement was made last year that organic material had been discovered on Ceres and could be found in different patches on the planet. After Brown University recently conducted further analysis of data taken from the Dawn spacecraft, researchers learned that there are even more carbon-based compounds than had first been estimated.

The new research on Ceres questions how these organic materials first alighted on the dwarf planet’s surface, while also suggesting exciting new possibilities when it comes to the analysis of data on missions like these, according to Brown University’s Hannah Kaplan.

“What this paper shows is that you can get really different results depending upon the type of organic material you use to compare with and interpret the Ceres data. That’s important not only for Ceres, but also for missions that will soon explore asteroids that may also contain organic material.”

Scientists are quick to point out that just because organic molecules were discovered on Ceres doesn’t necessarily mean that life of any kind will be found there. After all, these molecules can also exist through processes that are completely non-biological in nature.

However, for life to exist these organic materials do need to be present, which means that it is certainly possible that it could be found on Ceres. Add to this the fact that the dwarf planet contains water and water ice, and scientists are very much intrigued by what could be found on the surface of Ceres.

When Brown University researchers were trying to determine just how much organic material might be found on the surface of Ceres, Kaplan’s team decided to take a new approach to the data collected from the Dawn mission. For starters, she decided to forgo rocks from Earth to compare with the data and instead turned to meteorites. This was extremely helpful as the organic material that is found inside meteorites is quite different from organic material that is found on Earth.

By doing this, Hannah Kaplan’s team learned that the level of organic material that could be found on Ceres was much larger than had previously been reported.

“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.”

If the new study is indeed correct and the levels of organic material are really as high as they are estimated to be, scientists would like to know how they arrived on Ceres to begin with. The first theory is that these organic materials were formed inside the dwarf planet and were eventually found upon its surface. The second theory is that they appeared on Ceres from either an asteroid or a comet.

If the organic material was formed naturally on Ceres, this brings up further questions, as Brown University Professor Ralph Milliken explained.

“If the organics are made on Ceres, then you likely still need a mechanism to concentrate it in these specific locations or at least to preserve it in these spots. It’s not clear what that mechanism might be. Ceres is clearly a fascinating object, and understanding the story and origin of organics in these spots and elsewhere on Ceres will likely require future missions that can analyze or return samples.”

The new study on the large amount of organic material that has been detected on dwarf planet Ceres can be read in Geophysical Research Letters.