Jul 17, 2019 | Updated: 11:17 AM EDT

Will Dawn Find Life on Ceres? What NASA Has to Say About Possible Life on the Dwarf Planet

Feb 07, 2015 07:42 PM EST

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Ceres View from Dawn
(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

Releasing the sharpest set of images from within the asteroid belt to date, this week NASA researchers have filled the internet with their hopes for what may lie on the dwarf planet Ceres. Only a month before NASA's Dawn spacecraft will enter orbit around the 590-mile-wide dwarf, found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the space agency is hopeful that their mission will reveal a lot more about the small planet and the secrets its surface may hold.

"It's very exciting" Dawn Mission Director and Chief Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Marc Rayman says. "This is a truly unique world, something that we've never seen before."

Originally discovered in 1801 by researcher Giuseppe Piazzi, Ceres has remained a large mystery for the most part to the astronomical community. The rocky surface is too small to be properly photographed and investigated at a distance, however, with Dawn on its way researchers will only have to wait less than a month now before they can catch their first up-close glimpse at what lies below.

On the evening of Mar. 5, Dawn will become the first ever spacecraft to orbit Ceres, and will begin its transit around the dwarf planet. Researchers from NASA say that with a camera, a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, Dawn is equipped to give us an entirely unseen view of the far off world.

But what exactly do researchers hope to find? While the Dawn spacecraft is not equipped to search for signs of life, with its onboard imaging devices the team at NASA hopes to search for the source of all life - water. 

More than three times the size of Vesta, Ceres is though to account for nearly 30 percent of the belt's total mass. And though its surface is frigid with what appears to be ice, astronomers believe that Ceres may harbor lakes and subsurface oceans of liquid water far below. If subsurface water exists, Dawn may see chemical signs of interactions between it and the surface, Rayman says.

"That's the sort of the thing we would be looking for - surface structures or features that show up in the camera's eye, or something about the composition that's detectable by one of our multiple spectrometers that could show evidence" Rayman says. "But if the water doesn't make it to the surface, and isn't in large enough reservoirs to show up in the gravity data, then maybe we won't find it."

Though the subsurface waters may prove to be elusive, given that temperatures on Ceres can drop to -225 degrees Fahrenheit, Dawn will also attempt to find water in Ceres' water-vapor plume originally identified by Herschel, if it still exists. But either way, Dawn's approach to the dwarf planet will undoubtedly reveal the answers to many mysteries astronomers have sought for more than two centuries to date.

"After looking through telescopes at Ceres for more than 200 years, I just think it's really going to be exciting to see what this exotic, alien world looks like" Rayman says. "We're finally going to learn about this place."

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