- A NASA spacecraft has discovered that a salty ocean lies deep beneath the surface of Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
- New research shows that shiny salt deposits on Ceres’ surface were left by water sinking underground.
- Ceres may have once held alien life, scientists say, because of his recent geological activity, the presence of water, minerals containing ingredients for life, and a possible warm period in its past.
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A NASA spacecraft has just discovered an ocean hidden in our solar system.
The Dawn agency orbited the dwarf planet Ceres, which lies within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, for three years before running out of fuel in 2018. At one point, Dawn landed 22 miles, or 35 kilometers, above the surface of small world. Scientists are still studying the data collected, as they provide a closer look at some of the bright regions in Ceres that they would scratch their heads for years.
Already, Dawn was helping researchers learn that those bright spots were covered in a compound called sodium carbonate, which is made up of sodium, carbon, and oxygen. That salt crust likely came from the liquid that evaporated on the surface of Ceres.
But from the liquid that came from it remained a mystery until Monday, when a series of letters finally said that salt water had occupied up to the surface of the dwarf planet from an underground reservoir about 25 miles deep and hundreds of miles wide.
“It elevates Ceres to the status of ‘ocean world,'” Ray Carol, chief investigator for the Dawn mission, told Reuters.
This places the dwarf planet in the company of Enceladus (an icy moon of Saturn) and Europe (an icy moon of Jupiter) – other worlds with oceans beneath the surface. Like them, Ceres is now a contender for foreign life.
“The material found in Ceres is extremely important in terms of astrobiology,” Maria Cristina De Sanctis, a researcher at the Institututo Nazionale di Astrofisica in Rome, told The Guardian. “We know these minerals are all essential to the emergence of life.”
Ceres Ocean could be a relic of a warm era
The bright regions that Dawn studied are located within the October Ceres Crater – the salt deposits are named Cerealia Facula and Vinalia Faculae. They are only 2 million years old, and Dawn researchers think the geological process that made them is continuing.
But the forces that allow Enceladus and Europe to guard their oceans are not the same for Ceres. The other two ocean worlds feel a strong gravitational pull from their planets: As they orbit Saturn and Jupiter, those massive bodies stretch and compress the moons, building frictions that warm the moons from within.
But in the case of Ceres, asteroid impacts may have played a role.
“For the large deposit at Cerealia Facula, most of the salts were supplied from a wet area just below the surface that was melted by the heat of impact that formed the crater about 20 million years ago,” Raymond told NASA in a press release. s release. “The heat of impact was reduced after several million years; however, the impact also created large fractures that could reach the deep, long-life reservoir, allowing brine to continue to penetrate the surface.”
In other words, the asteroid impacts may have briefly kept the dwarf planet warm enough for liquid water to continue beneath its surface. Scientists think the salty groundwater they discovered through Dawn may be a surviving pocket of a global ocean that froze as Ceres cooled.
In the short period when conditions were quite warm, life may have been born.
“The probability of finding life in another world continues to grow,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Twitter. “Ceres is the ultimate proof that our solar system is filled with ancient habitable environments.”