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Ceres as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 (HST)

Life on Ceres: Could the Dwarf Planet be the Root of Panspermia?

5 Mar , 2009

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It has been theorised for a long time that the dwarf planet Ceres may be harbouring a lot of water. With the promise of water comes the hope that life may be present on this little world orbiting the Sun in the asteroid belt. You may be forgiven in thinking that the search for life in the Solar System has gone a little crazy, after all, we haven’t found life anywhere else apart from our own planet. However, if we do discover life on other planetary bodies apart from Earth, perhaps the panspermia hypothesis is more than just an academic curiosity. So why is Ceres suddenly so interesting? Firstly, it probably has water. Secondly, the ex-asteroid is so small that fragments of Ceres could have been kicked into space by meteorite impacts more readily than other larger planetary bodies, making it a prime candidate for seeding life on Earth…

Now THAT is a dw<span>arf plan</span>et: The size comparison of the Earth, Moon and Ceres (NASA)

Now THAT is a dwarf planet: The size comparison of the Earth, Moon and Ceres (NASA)

There’s always good news to outweigh the bad. In 2006 when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto from being a “planet” to a “dwarf planet”, Ceres had the reversal in fortune in that it was promoted from being just another big asteroid to a dwarf planet. Now this tiny world has become a little more important.

In 2007, NASA launched the Dawn spacecraft that will reach this mysterious dwarf planet in 2015. It will be the first mission to this region of the Solar System, and it is making good progress (Dawn just completed a gravitational flyby of Mars). So far, since its discovery in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, we have only managed to attain some fuzzy images of Ceres using the Hubble Space Telescope (pictured top). As can be seen from the size comparison, trying to spot Ceres is quite a task, it is tiny (in fact, it is the smallest classified dwarf planet out there, so far). This may be the case, but it is its low mass that has excited a University of Giessen (Germany) researcher who is studying the possibility that Ceres could support life.

Although it is unknown whether or not Ceres has liquid water oceans, Joop Houtkooper believes that if it does, basic life forms may be thriving around hydrothermal vents in the hypothetical Ceres oceans. However, it is not clear how these proposed oceans can stay in a liquid state, as it seems unlikely there is significant tectonic activity (as it has very little mass to sustain a long-term molten core) and it is not orbiting a tidally disruptive body (like the icy moon Europa around Jupiter – extreme tidal forces maintain sub-surface oceans in a warm state). However, the idea remains as Ceres has a lower escape velocity than any other planetary body, meaning that microbes (hitch-hiking on fragments of Ceres) could have been kicked into space with more regularity than other planets, such as Mars.

I looked at the different solar system bodies which either had or currently have oceans,” Houtkooper explains. “The planet Venus probably had an ocean early in its history, but the planet’s greater mass means that more force is needed to chip off a piece of the planetary crust and propel it in the direction of the Earth. Smaller objects like Ceres have lower escape velocities, making it easier for parts of it to be separated.”

Artist impression of the Dawn spacecraft exploring the asteroid belt (NASA)

Artist impression of the Dawn spacecraft exploring the asteroid belt (NASA)

Also, Ceres appears to have gotten off fairly lightly during the Late Heavy Bombardment, allowing it to retain its surface water. If the Earth had any life before this era, it is possible that the violent impacts sterilized the planet. In this case, it is possible life arrived to Earth via a shard of another planetary body in the form of a meteorite.

Although calculations suggest Ceres could be a very likely candidate as the source of panspermia, eventually leading to life on Earth, the question as to whether Ceres is even a hospitable place for life to form is doubtful. Also, if Ceres was saved from the worst impacts during the Late Heavy Bombardment, and it appears to have retained the majority of its water through lack of impacts, surely Ceres fragments would be a very rare meteorite component?

Still, it is an engrossing area of research, but we’ll have to wait until Dawn arrives in Ceres orbit in a little over five years time before we arrive at any answers…

Source: Space.com


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yanluz86
Member
March 5, 2009 8:03 PM

Finally Ceres is getting some attention. I can’t wait to find out more about Ceres and Pluto. It will answer many questions when we get some close ups.

And bring some new questions of course.

Cheers,
Yan Luz

Calvin
Guest
Calvin
March 5, 2009 10:14 PM

Great article! I have been a _big_ fan of Ceres ever since I first found out about it.

I cannot wait for the Dawn mission to reach Vesta and move along to Ceres.

–“You may be forgiven in thinking that the search for life in the Solar System has gone a little crazy, after all, we haven’t found life anywhere else apart from our own planet. ”

Yes but I feel we are very close! 8)

Bret
Guest
March 6, 2009 4:10 AM
Although the article is intriguing and makes for some sort of Treasure Island type musings late at night, I find the one flaw with the theory of Panspermia is that the origin of life anywhere is there – where it originated. Panspermia presupposes that life is somehow difficult to evolve. But amino acids, PAHs, water in some form, respirate-able chemistry (whether CO2, methane, salts/perchlorate, acids) are absolutely everywhere we look. I think we will find – especially with Dawn – that life is not the exception, but the default state of anywhere significant resources can be leveraged in a location with energy and chemistry to warrant it. If I may: The Potential for Fungal Life in the Asteroid… Read more »
Elijah Ryan
Guest
Elijah Ryan
March 5, 2009 9:30 PM

I think it’s more plausible that a second earth-like planet orbited the sun between Mars and Earth and suffered a catalysmic impact that created the asteroid belt and left the legacy of Ceres. Some of the shattered remains of this planet brought life to Earth.

Huron
Guest
Huron
March 5, 2009 10:12 PM

The theory is that Ceres has liquid water oceans early in its history, but not now, right? Are these underground oceans like Europa or on the surface?

orrery66
Member
March 5, 2009 11:26 PM

I have a question: How is it that Hubble can take stunningly detailed photos of galaxies millions of light years away, but the photo of Ceres, right here in our own solar system, is blurry? Even Jupiter is further away than Ceres and we’ve gotten crystal-clear pictures of Jupiter.

Vicky Pollard
Guest
Vicky Pollard
March 6, 2009 12:31 AM
Orrery66 — “Detail” is an illusion when comparing Hubble images of Ceres with Hubble images of galaxies and Jupiter. The detail you see in the image of Ceres is incredible. But you wouldn’t see the same level of detail in Jupiter images taken from an equal distance. Think of it this way: Ceres is very tiny, and would hit far fewer pixel elements in a telescope’s digital camera. The above image of Ceres is those few pixels blown up to a image size we can appreciate as an image of a “planet”. Jupiter is thousands of times bigger than Ceres and its images can cover a lot more of the digital camera’s pixels and gives the illusion of… Read more »
tek_604
Guest
tek_604
March 6, 2009 12:32 AM

@Orrery66:

I’m no expert on optics, but I have read around about this, and basically…

1) Ceres is VERY small compared to Jupiter.
2) Hubble just does not have the resolution for such a small object at such a close distance. This is also why Hubble cannot make out the lunar landing sites.

Vicky Pollard
Guest
Vicky Pollard
March 6, 2009 12:34 AM

Orrery66 — oops, one more thing I forgot to add:

Hubble would never be able to detect an object the size of Ceres in another galaxy.

Paul Eaton-Jones
Member
March 6, 2009 1:53 AM

Why would Ceres be the place of origin of on Earth? It seems to me that virtually every body in the solar system has been considered as the spot where life could have evolved and THEN been transported here. Has anyone considered the radical idea that life on earth actually began here?? Am I being too speculative with this thought?

Terry
Guest
Terry
March 6, 2009 2:55 AM

I agree with Paul.

It seems too obvious that the world beneath our feet is by far the most (and possibly only) hospitable and stable for life to have developed in this solar system at least..

What is it about the human soul that has to justify looking for the origins of life elsewhere on every scrap of rock in the middle of nowhere rather than admit it happened right here.

Panspermia is a nice idea but…….

damian
Member
March 6, 2009 3:01 AM
Ceres is at the hypothetical limit from the sun for liquid water to remain well (liquid). IT is the most interesting planetary body for us to explore. Its a wonder it has not gathered more attention. One third of the mass of the asteroid belt. It is high in water content, even if it is potentially frozen. There is a mystery here that only close observation will resolve. I for one cant wait for Dawn to arrive. And even though Dawn propulsion is (evolutionary) I wish that it could get there sooner. 2015 is still a long way away. As for Biological life, on other planets, I think we want to believe that we came from somewhere else,… Read more »
GrahamC
Member
GrahamC
March 6, 2009 4:38 AM

The probability of life developing may be high or it may be low, but either way Ceres must offer a smaller range of environments for that start up than the larger and more diverse Earth, so in the absence of any other information I would suggest that the probablity of life originating there is correspondingly lower than here on the Earth.

Sci-Fi Si
Guest
March 6, 2009 4:40 AM

Why could life not have started on Earth!? Why does life have to come from somewhere else?

Oh, life couldn’t possibly have started on Earth, it must have come from some asteriod, or other ball of rock out in space.

Could it not just be that at some point in Earth’s history, somewhere on the planet, conditions were absolutely perfect for life to begin… and so it did…

Feenixx
Member
March 6, 2009 4:57 AM

The notions of Panspermia and Exogenesis seem to get confused quite a lot of the time. Most articles here speaking of Panspermia actually refer to Exogenesis.

Panspermia (a notion which seems very likely to me) proposes that life forms throughout the Universe wherever it can (including right here on Earth), hangs on for however long it can, and probably can travel between locations, swapping genetic material around, perhaps giving evolution the odd extra boost here and there (Cambrian Explosion on Earth?).

Exogenesis proposes life on Earth was seeded from elsewhere… as a response, I slip into the role of Devil’s Advocate and propose that all life, anywhere else, was seeded from Earth…….. wink

john
Guest
john
March 6, 2009 5:26 AM
Paul’s point underscores the most troubling question about life on earth–Is it a one trick pony contingent on there being an earth? That question is the most important question our species could ever ask because it is not the least bit impossible that the Universe will die out without ever again duplicating the historical contingencies that necessarily resulted in an earth whose environment could give rise to a set of self-replicating chemicals which could evolve a complex critter, much less one like us, who would even be aware that it was alive. I for one desperately hope that the Drake equation is more than wishful thinking because if it is not, then there really are only two options… Read more »
Kevin F.
Member
March 6, 2009 6:24 AM

*sigh* It’s a very decent theory that panspermia COULD happen. Heck, and alien spacecraft could have dumped its septic tank on primordial Earth for all we know.

But could we FIND life elsewhere before we go about theorizing on where it came from? Just a few weeks ago we had one of these on Mars? Why the sudden rash of articles?

Todd
Guest
March 6, 2009 6:47 AM
No problem with the speculation, really. But the best model we have now is that life began on Earth and except for a relative handful of explorers and a few microbes, has pretty much stayed put. Anything else is as likely as a Von Daniken theory until we actually find life elsewhere. Personally I don’t think we’ll ever find life off-planet here, but I wouldn’t sob at being proved wrong. I find the geology and chemistry of solar system bodies as amazing and awe-inspiring as anything small, living, and microbial. Given Everest-high cliffs, shield volcanoes, ice geysers pumping a planetary ring, subsurface world oceans, the greenhouse effect at 30AU, or a little smear of microlife, I think the… Read more »
marcellus
Guest
marcellus
March 6, 2009 2:23 PM

Ceres is pretty easy to spot these days, moving through the constellation of Leo near the double star 54 Leonis. At mag. 7, you can easily track its movements night by night in binoculars.

I doubt that Ceres ever had “oceans”. Water ice, maybe, but oceans? It’s too much of a runt.

I like the space bar idea, and eagerly look forward to 2015.

Conic
Guest
March 6, 2009 7:50 AM

“I’m no expert on optics, but I have read around about this, and basically…

1) Ceres is VERY small compared to Jupiter.
2) Hubble just does not have the resolution for such a small object at such a close distance. This is also why Hubble cannot make out the lunar landing sites.”

You should have stopped at one. Ceres is small. Very small. If the poster had looked at the image at the top of the page, they would not have had to ask us. They didnt. This is why misconceptions last a long time. Lazy.

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