PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] -- Last year, scientists with NASA's Dawn mission announced the detection of organic material -- carbon-based compounds that are necessary components for life -- exposed in patches on the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres. Now, a new analysis of the Dawn data by Brown University researchers suggests those patches may contain a much higher abundance of organics than originally thought.
The findings, published recently in Geophysical Research Letters, raise intriguing questions about how those organics got to the surface of Ceres, and the methods used in the new study could also provide a template for interpreting data for future missions, the researchers say.
"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," said Hannah Kaplan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Southwest Research Institute who led the research while completing her Ph.D. at Brown. "That's important not only for Ceres, but also for missions that will soon explore asteroids that may also contain organic material."
Organic molecules are the chemical building blocks for life. Their detection on Ceres doesn't mean life exists there or ever existed there; non-biological processes can give rise to organic molecules as well. But because life as we know it can't exist without organic material, scientists are interested in how it's distributed through the solar system. The presence of organic material on Ceres raises intriguing possibilities, particularly because the dwarf planet is also rich in water ice, and water is another necessary component for life.