- A spacecraft from NASA has discovered that a saltwater sea lies deep below the surface of Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
- New research shows that shiny salt deposits on the surface of Ceres were left by water that was carbonated up from underground.
- Ceres may once have had alien life, researchers say, due to its recent geological activity, the presence of water, minerals containing ingredients for life and a possible hot period in its past.
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A spacecraft from NASA just discovered a hidden ocean in our solar system.
Dawn already helped researchers learn that the shiny spots were covered in a compound called sodium carbonate, which consists of sodium, carbon and oxygen. The salty crust probably came from liquid that evaporated on Cere’s surface.
But where the liquid came from remained a mystery until Monday, when a series of papers finally said that salt water had percolated up to the surface of the dwarf planet from an underground reservoir about 250 miles deep and hundreds of miles wide.
“This lifts Ceres to ‘sea world’ status,” Carol Raymond, the chief investigator for the Dawn mission, told Reuters.
Placing the dwarf planet in the company of Enceladus (an icy moon of Saturn) and Europe (an icy moon of Jupiter) – other worlds with subterranean seas. Like them, Ceres is now a challenger to alien life.
“The material found at Ceres is extremely important in astrobiology,” Maria Cristina De Sanctis, a researcher at the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Rome, told The Guardian. “We know that these minerals are all essential for the origin of life.”
The sea of Ceres may be the relic of a warmer era
The bright regions Dawn studied are located in Ceres Occator crater – the salt deposits are called Cerealia Facula and Vinalia Faculae. They are only two million years old, and Dawn scientists believe that the geological process that made them is ongoing.
But the forces that allow Enceladus and Europe to maintain their seas are not the same for Ceres. The other two sea worlds feel a strong gravitational force from their planets: As they orbit Saturn and Jupiter, the massive bodies stretch and press the moons and build friction that warms the moons from within.
But in Cere’s case, the asteroid impact may have played a role.
“For the large deposit at Cerealia Facula, most of the salts were delivered from a slushy area just below the surface that was melted by the heat from the impact that formed the crater about 20 million years ago,” Raymond said in a NASA press release. “The impact heat decreased after a few million years. However, the effect also created large cracks that could reach the deep, long-lived container, which meant that brine could continue to percolate to the surface.”
In other words, the asteroid impact may have briefly kept the dwarf planet warm enough for liquid water to continue below the surface. Researchers believe that the underground salt water they discovered via Dawn may be a surviving pocket in a global ocean that froze when Ceres cooled.
For a short time when conditions were warm enough, life may have arisen.
“The probability of finding life in another world continues to rise,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Twitter. “Ceres is the latest proof that our solar system is filled with ancient inhabited environments.”