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

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

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

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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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tyler Durden March 7, 2009, 10:18 AM

    “# Joe Says:
    March 6th, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Cool Space Bar, it will be a pit stop between Mars and Jupiter. :)


    That’s a fun idea, but impractical – I doubt that the orbits of Mars, Ceres, and Jupiter align often enough that Ceres would be a pitstop between the two.

    (Since all 3 planets can be in different stages of their orbits and on opposite sides of the sun.)

  • Salacious B. Crumb March 7, 2009, 10:49 AM

    Don Cox said: “one giant cesspool of interchanging parts”
    “By “interchangeable parts”, do you mean Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen atoms? If so, you are no doubt right.
    You could add Methane and Water molecules, both of which are common and widespread.”
    I meant, atoms and molecules, radiation, life, astronomical objects. – a temporary storage container for bits and bobs.

  • omnivorr March 8, 2009, 8:36 AM

    quote damian:
    “As for Biological life, on other planets, I think we want to believe that we came from somewhere else, because we cannot reconcile why we are sentient when all other lifeforms on our planet lack this trait”

    “sentient” does not mean “arrogantly self-obsessed and ignorant of others” as your statement aptly self-describes… you would not recognise other life unless it High-fived you and gave you a Herschey-bar, if that’s your attitood.. dood 😛

  • george jarrett March 9, 2009, 11:28 AM

    Glover, thank you for your input, but I think you misunderstood my intentions here. FIRST; I do explore more than websites for my information. second; What I meant by “we may never venture out” was that manned-flight may never go beyond Mars, IF we ever get that far. There are more to just “imagining” space flight. Radiation, distances, lonliness. You guys just dont get it. Yes, we all can dream. Again, what would it actually, change on Earth and with human-survivial and peace if we were to find microbio-life on Mars or on a moon? We know of millions of species of life here on Earth, and yet, we are still in the process of destroying our planet and eliminating most, if not all of that life. So, to me, it stands to say that our venturing and nosying into the Cosmos would only serve our curiosity and maybe even cause us to interfere and destroy such found life that may exist eslewhere. I deeply believe that a God who was able to create such a vast Universe and such complicated, intelligent creatures as ourselves, would not stop at that. And the cosmos would be teeming with life. That is His reasoning for placing inhabited planets so far apart as so travel is nearly impossible.
    So, you cats can continue your curious searches. I have not problem with that. But, what about global warming, hunger, homelessness, wars? Life is here, for but a short period. Do you seriously think that we will populate another planet? BIG ANSWER: Your search for life elsewhere is silly, common-sense should tell any intelligent person that the Universe must be full of life.
    Its just that the human mind can grasp only what it can see, smell, touch or hear. That is why so many attempt to deny the existence of God. “Lean not unto thine own understanding, there are wonders in My universe that you will NEVER be able to comprehend!”

  • Tim young March 9, 2009, 1:18 PM

    Great story. What I always wondered about the asteroid belt was how big a planet all of the known and guestimated asteroids in the asteroid belt would make.
    Ian, or anyone else, do you or anyone you know of that you could tell me about a scientific site that has a way for regular laymen to submit their ideas about their theories or ideas about planetary or other astronomical events to be read by any of your staff or contributing scientists for evaluation, even just a forum? I would like to know because I do have a good hypothesis about the reason for the periodic volcanic and flooding episodes on Mars, based on information from an article I have read about the data from the Viking landers a long time ago. I would very much appreciate any information you could send me. Thank you very much.

  • catelyn March 10, 2009, 2:13 PM

    it would be so cool if there were intelligent life-forms on ceres! the Dawn mission is definitely worth it

  • Pat Donnelly March 12, 2009, 6:06 PM

    Our star is a constant source of protons, also known as Hydrogen ions.
    Life used to find oxygen toxic, as with archaea and anaerobic bacteria. But with the development of algae, free oxygen became prevalent, as they excrete it. Hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water.
    Water only comes after life?

    Panspermia is based on the idea that life might develop on earth or elsewhere, as a result of these steps, but because we can detect complex molecules in space, often based on carbon and nitrogen, all used in cell structure, we assume that they may have jump started the process. They may have, but they merely duplicate conditions that exist on every rocky body of any size……
    The use of the term “spermia”, suggests that for which we have no evidence:zygotic or even less unlikely, DNA in space.
    Panspermia is a misnomer.

  • Beaverdog March 29, 2009, 5:16 AM

    Re: Panspermia: I have read all of the posts here all right and all wrong in my opinion, something that i have noticed about being a human is your either wrong or your right, this very notion is questionable, what i am trying to say is perhaps life on earth originated on earth but potentially else where as per the Panspermia hypothesis as well, has anyone stopped to consider this option also? its true that our earth is gifted in many special ways I.E sustained its ability to support life, but who is to say that all those millions upon millions of years of evolution of our solar system didn’t see life originate from not just earth or mars or Ceres but many planetary bodies? some perhaps that don’t even exist anymore. this is what is exciting about the Panspermian hypothesis, for me it means the possibility that life was rampart in our solar history who is to say that life couldn’t have come from Venus as well when it still had oceans or mars when its core still retained a strong magnetic field to protect it from solar wind and potentially had mild tectonic activity similar to earth?. i have an idea i would like to share in the hope that someone more intelligent than me would explore its possibility;

    I believe Ceres suffered a similar fate to earth but was not as fortunate as us and thus its mass still roams as an asteroid field,possibility that the mass of the asteroid belt has the same net effect on the much smaller body Ceres as our moon has on our planet Earth, the impact of Ceres with other unknown body propels large asteroids towards mars, mars suffers massive impact on soft crust on one side the other side ejects large volumes of its core out (I.E Olympus Mons) into space, consequently shuts down Mars’s core and ability to sustain large enough magnetic field to offset solar wind slowly blowing its earlier larger atmosphere. in the process life gets blown around from one body to the next. lets not forget some one sneezed on the lens of a lunar mission left bacteria on it remained in conditions relative of the void of space returned to earth and bustard bacteria returns to life, Ceres is so damn exciting for me, more exciting than Saturn’s moon Titan