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…
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.
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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.”
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…
48 Replies to “Life on Ceres: Could the Dwarf Planet be the Root of Panspermia?”
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.
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)
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 Belt starts to explore this, imho.
Thanks for your time!
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.
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?
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.
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 stunning detail. But those “details” we see of Jupiter are of structures a lot larger than Ceres.
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.
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.
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?
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…….
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, because we cannot reconcile why we are sentient when all other lifeforms on our planet lack this trait.
Its am impertinent viewpoint. and short on imagination.
Take the Black Sand dunes on Mars, why is it not possible that these are arcologie’s of water borne life.
Surely we should not expect life to be a mimic of earths biology. It is after all alien.
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.
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…
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…….. 😉
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 life is either without purpose or it is not..
*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?
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 latter would be last on my list.
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.
“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.
2015 will be a great year!
I wish we could speed time up…
Does anybody know the resolution of the camera on board Dawn?
how does it compare with say HiRise (which has 1 mirocradian res.)
Why think of life transported to Earth? I don’t get it.
We have to find evidence of life ever existed elsewhere first, then we can theorize about it coming to Earth.
Earth had the perfect conditions at one point in its history to start life and it did. Look at it today the evidence is everywhere.
It will be great to send probe to explore Ceres, can’t wait for it. Even if we find life existed on Ceres or Mars, still it does not mean it came to Earth.
We should leave this life starting business alone, we are here lets explore the universe and move forward. Send the probes.
Actually our asteroid belt seems to never have formed a planet at all, beause that was the location wher the snow-line was that separated the gas from the rocky planets.
No catheclasmic event that destroyed a planet and became the asteroid belt, but just normal physical processes involving water at that line having different properies inside and outside that line.
Joe – Although it is always a possibility, we still do not have solid scientific evidence that life as we know it began here on Earth. That’s why many, including myself, take the theory of panspermia seriously.
It could be that just like the soil on Earth is seeded in many ingenious ways, and from great distances, by plants and animals, so are planets.
It’s just another theory, and a compelling one. It is the job of science to explore all such theories in order to gain a proper understanding of how our universe functions. To discard a good theory – and all science is theoretical – without properly disproving it, as you suggest we do, would be poor science.
I look forward to Dawn’s arrival at Ceres.
wow, you guys need to quit! What does is really matter where and how life started? At the rate of hatred and wars on this planet. we may never get to venture out anyways. I’d wish people would be more interested in how to prolong and better life here on Earth than spend our mind power and money on what could be or could not be out there. God put us here! When the time comes for us to know more of His universe,,, He will present it to us in a very BOLD way. (WE ARE NOT THE INTELLIGENT BEINGS AS WE MAY WANT TO THINK!) The universe is huge beyond the human mind’s capability to comprehend. We KNOW something else is out there. God gave us these great distances of space for a reason… Man’s need to conquer and destroy what is different from himself. Smart God!
Life could have evolved (from simple organic chemicals) on Earth, or on many planets. It is more scientifically interesting if the life that is now on Earth evolved here, because we have some hope of working out what the conditions were here while it was evolving.
If the life now on Earth originated on some other planet, there is almost no chance that we will ever find out what the initial conditions were.
I can’t see that Panspermia is interesting. If it proves to be the case that our life originates from another solar system, that puts a big wall in the way of research.
If it turns out that life first appeared on Ceres, that is trivial, as that asteroid is just a nearby location.
I’m sick of the linear thinking on Panspermia. It doesnt just go one planet to another. Its a constant dynamic flux of materials at all times, moreso the earlier in the formation of the planets you go…
Ceres is no more a ‘source of Panspermia’ as anything else. All the materials were intermixing and still are to this day, why would it form on one little planetoid then move suddenly to earth? Its stupid.
It could have formed on countless places including earth, and only stayed alive on Earth. Or the materials never came to life except on earth. Or life formed on Ceres AND on Earth AND maybe Titan and maybe Europa, maybe it formed independently, MAYBE it formed on one body here and spread elsewhere…
Well, whatever. Panspermia or not, Ceres would make a good location for a drinking establishment, or, “bar”.
Cool Space Bar, it will be a pit stop between Mars and Jupiter. 🙂
The fuzzy photo does look a lot like earth with it’s blue and brownish colors. Possibly oceans and land masses?
Per – We have not found life outside of planet Earth yet, until we find evidence of life existed in past or still exists on Mars or Ceres or any other place other than Earth, I can’t take this theory too seriously. It is extremely difficult to prove when we have yet to find life elsewhere.
“I’m sick of the linear thinking on Panspermia. It doesnt just go one planet to another. Its a constant dynamic flux of materials at all times, more so the earlier in the formation of the planets you go…”
May be the whole Solar System, the Galaxy or even the Universe is alive? You know … one giant cesspool of interchanging parts Next we will say life comes from that wee asteroid that just passed the Earth, or even return to that classic theory of William Herschel that there was life living on the Sun, and that the modern version say life arrived on the gossamer of the near continuous solar wind !!
Nah!! I think someone has been watching too many repeats of the old Star Trek episodes.
Panspermia should perhaps be considered the unwanted contaminating cancer, whose contagion pollutes the Earth, the whole solar system, the Galaxy, or even the universe. Either get out the detergent or it should be immediately surgically removed at all costs. Then, at least, the whole place can do what is does and just get it’s much warranted peace. Jehovah be damned.
Terragen your an absolute legend!
Don’t you trash-talk panspermia! Remember:
Every pansperm is sacred
Every pansperm is good
If a pansperm is wasted
God gets quite irate!
We are lonely in the Universe: (
I know what we’ll do, we will crash Ceres into Mars to transfer his oceans overthere and there you go… bang, Mars ready for becoming Earth vers. 2.0
Thank you Vicky and tek604. Those are good explanations. That’s a good point about Hubble not picking out lunar landing sites – I’d wondered about that too. To Conic, I would like to say that I DID look at the size comparison image. I like to disspell astronomical misconceptions as much as the next person. As I stated, since Ceres is closer, it seemed we should be able to see it better. But the pixel explanation that Vicky provided was a very good one; one I hadn’t thought of.
I have to agree with Paul also on the idea that life could have, and probably did, originate here on Earth.
“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.
“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…….”
In spite of this article, it’s not really about panspermia. Obviously thee is life on Earth, what ‘the human soul’ really wants to know is if and how frequently life has arisen *completely independently* anywhere else. IOW, are we alone?
And the answer will not be handed to us, we have to look, to know. Whether that’s seeking microbial (presumably the most likely and common, if Earth is any example) all the way to SETI…
But I’m not holding out any hope for anything more complicated than amino acids on (or from) Ceres.
“wow, you guys need to quit! What does is really matter where and how life started?”
Because it would tell us how likely it is that life (intelligent or not) exists elsewhere in the universe. You may not consider that an important question, but we do.
” At the rate of hatred and wars on this planet. we may never get to venture out anyways.”
We *have* ventured out, to some extent. Should we wait for Utopia before doing more?
“I’d wish people would be more interested in how to prolong and better life here on Earth…”
Are you under the impression that no one is already doing those things? You really need to explore something more than space-oriented websites..
“… than spend our mind power and money on what could be or could not be out there.”
Answering the ‘could or could not’ is what this is about.
“God put us here!”
We await your observational or experimental evidence on that. (And even accepting that,it doesn’t answer the question. How do you know
that He did not put life elsewhere? Divine intervention should be the explanation of absolute last resort.)
“# 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.)
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.
“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 😛
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!”
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.
it would be so cool if there were intelligent life-forms on ceres! the Dawn mission is definitely worth it
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.
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
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