Mysterious spray of organic material spottet on planet Ceres

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NASA have confirmed that they have discovered an organic material on the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres. This planet is large enough to be classed as a dwarf planet but is technically referred to as an asteroid.

Organic material found on Ceres

This in itself isn’t ground breaking news. After all, thousands of asteroids and other space debris have been found to have traces of organic material on them. But something else has spiked the interest of researchers.

This is the first time such material has been found in the main Asteroid belt. “This is the first clear detection of organic molecules from orbit on the main belt body, “said researcher Maria Cristina De Sanctis.

In addition to this, the presence of the molecules itself seems different than what has been discovered before. The molecules are more fragile than others, and the fact that they are scattered all over the asteroid is something new (normally they are centered around a small area).

This has raised an interesting question that scientists are now determined to answer. Was the material native to the asteroids, or has it been left there after being hit by another piece of rock? An answer may lie in the type of molecules found. They are of the type that would undoubtedly burn up in high heat, pointing researchers to believe that any high impact collision would not have transferred this material, pointing to the conclusion it is native of Ceres.

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What is still a mystery, though, is why they have only been found at a specific site on the dwarf planet. It is likely this is because it is a place where water from a subterranean ocean is thought to have escaped to the surface, bringing its minerals with it. “This discovery adds to our understanding of the possible origins of water and organics on Earth, “said Julie Castillo-Rogez.

Carbon tends to form two broad families of organic material – one in the form of rings called aromatics, the other as chains described as aliphatic.

Aromatic rings tend to be more robust than the aliphatic chains, which fall apart more easily under high temperatures, suggesting that such material would be unlikely to survive the high-energy impact of a crater-forming meteorite.

This is reflected in the abundance of aromatics in rocky ‘chondrite’ type meteorites, where chains of carbon are a relative rarity.

What’s more, an impact would have mixed any foreign material into Cere’s surface, making it even more unlikely that it would be seen as a distinctive spread of organic molecules.

With all signs pointing at a native origin for the chemicals, the next question is how it came to be scattered around Ernutet and nowhere else.

A clue there could lie in the abundance of carbonates and clays in the area. Just as hot springs bubble water to the surface of the Earth, Ceres has hydrothermal activity within its cold outer shell, seeding its surface with water heavily saturated with salts and nitrogen-bearing clays.

In fact, one of the dwarf planet’s first big mysteries were a number of bright patches seen on its surface. The spots were initially assumed to be water ice, yet later figured to be mostly sodium carbonate salts deposited on the surface as brine squirted from a subterranean ocean sublimated in the cold near-vacuum.

Of course, there is still the mystery of why the aliphatic compounds have only been seen on this particular part of Ceres, which hopefully future studies could provide some insight into.

The fact Ceres has such a mix of water, organic material, and nitrogen is exciting for any scientist interested in the origins of life on Earth.

“This discovery adds to our understanding of the possible origins of water and organics on Earth,” said Julie Castillo-Rogez, Dawn project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Asteroids provide a snapshot of our Solar System’s early development, while also acting as tiny worlds slowly evolving in their own right.

While this might look like just another boring smear of carbon on some orbiting rock, its puzzling nature could hold clues on how organic material evolved into life here on Earth.

This research was published in Science.

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