NASA mission finds organic compounds in asteroid belt, could point to life

from NASA Dawn spacecraft launched in 2007 with a mission that didn’t get much press attention. The small craft was heading for the asteroid belt, where it would be tasked with studying the development of protoplanets, or celestial bodies orbiting our sun that might have developed into planets. By learning more about these protoplanets, we can better understand how our own planet formed – offering an abundance of sought-after knowledge for those interested in planetary science, but not many headline-grabbing headlines.

Throughout 2011 and 2012, the Dawn spacecraft maintained an orbit around the protoplanet Vesta, sending data and images back to NASA for further analysis, before departing for its next target: Ceres, a large protoplanet. located somewhere in the gap between Mars and Jupiter. .

Ceres is the largest body in our solar system’s asteroid belt, with a diameter of about 587 miles. For the past two years, the Dawn spacecraft has been in orbit around the massive protoplanet, using its onboard suite of analytical equipment to study the composition of space rock and relay its findings to scientists on Earth – all its work could be considered interesting in some respects, but was not quite worthy of a press release.

That is, until last week.

February 16and, the team of NASA scientists studying Ceres has announced that they have discovered signs of organic matter on the surface of Ceres. These organic materials are a big deal – because they don’t verify the existence of life on the protoplanet, but are a mandatory prerequisite for life as we know it.

“This is the first clear detection of organic molecules orbiting a main belt body,” said Maria Cristina De Sanctis, lead author of the study, based at the National Institute of Astrophysics in Rome.

These organic compounds, discovered by scientists using a visible and infrared surface mapping spectrometer, may indicate “that early life could have developed on Ceres”, according to Michael Küppers, a planetary scientist at the European Space Agency. Although no signs of life have yet been observed by the spacecraft, it is important to note that this craft was not designed to perform such an analysis, and any life that exists in orbiting rock would be probably microscopic and hidden deep inside the rock. .

“In principle, life could exist on Ceres today.” Kuppers continued. “It’s closer to Earth and [the] spacecraft do not experience the high levels of radiation that they experience in the environment of the outer planets. Certainly, in any case, it is difficult to search for life, which, if it exists, should be several kilometers below the surface.

Of course, even if there is no life on Ceres, this discovery could have a dramatic effect on our understanding of how life developed on our own planet. If asteroids with compositions similar to Ceres impacted Earth billions of years ago, the organic matter left behind, combined with the liquid water already on the surface, could have been the recipe needed to revive life on Earth. our planet.

Organic materials of similar composition have been discovered elsewhere in our solar system, including on March, where scientists still believe there is potential for bacterial life deep below the planet’s surface, but many in the scientific community were surprised to find such compounds on what is actually a large asteroid. This could mean that this building block necessary for life is commonly found throughout the universe, and that large asteroid-like bodies could actually harbor life if tidal or tectonic movement within protoplanets is able to generate enough heat to melt water ice and mix with organic matter.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has reached the limit of its abilities in the hunt for life on the surface, and is now adopting a wider orbit in order to study the celestial body from a higher altitude. NASA has already offered ideas for manned missions to asteroids in our solar system, as well as unmanned missions to search for life on other planetary bodies like Jupiter’s moon Europa, but possibly with new discoveries. as promising about the potential for life in the closer asteroid belt, we could see a shift in NASA’s strategy going forward.

Meanwhile, it seems increasingly likely that not only are we not alone in the universe… we may not even be alone in our own celestial neighborhood.

Image courtesy of NASA

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