Nasa has found the building blocks of life on a dwarf planet in our solar system – potentially suggesting that primitive life developed there.
Ceres, where the carbon-based materials were discovered by a Nasa spacecraft, is now one of the main areas of interest for scientists who are looking for life outside of our own earth. It joins places like Mars and moons of Jupiter and Saturn that have large oceans.
The organic molecules found on the planet by Nasa's Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting around Ceres for almost two years. Ceres sits in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and is very small – the same size as Texas – but of interest to researchers.
"I think these organic molecules are a long way from microbial life," Dawn lead scientist Christopher Russell of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) said. "However, this discovery tells us that we need to explore Ceres further."
Ceres is about three times further from the sun than Earth, and its makeup is thought to be similar to the kinds of material present when the solar system was formed, about 4.5 billion years ago.
"The discovery indicates that the starting material in the solar system contained the essential elements, or the building blocks, for life," Russell said.
"Ceres may have been able to take this process only so far. Perhaps to move further along the path took a larger body with more complex structure and dynamics," like Earth, Russell added.
The organic material was found near a 31-mile-wide (50-km-wide) crater in Ceres' northern hemisphere. Although the exact molecular compounds in the organics could not be identified, they matched tar-like minerals, such as kerite or asphaltite, the scientists wrote.
"Because Ceres is a dwarf planet that may still preserve internal heat from its formation period and may even contain a subsurface ocean, this opens the possibility that primitive life could have developed on Ceres itself," planetary scientist Michael Kuppers of the European Space Astronomy Centre in Madrid wrote in an related essay in the journal Science.
Scientists were able to confirm that the materials didn't come from a crashing asteroid or comet, on the basis of the size and type of things found there.
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