The dwarf planet Ceres, one of the most intriguing objects in the solar system, is gushing water vapour from its ice-covered surface, scientists said on Wednesday in a finding that raises the question of whether it might be hospitable to life.
The discovery comes just over a year before the scheduled arrival of
"This is the first time water vapour has been unequivocally detected on any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere," Michael KÜppers of the
The question is what is causing these plumes from two locations on Ceres. One idea, say scientists, is that the sun sometimes warms parts of the icy surface enough that water vapour emerges.
Another possibility, they say, is that there is liquid water under the frozen surface of Ceres and that vapour is shooting out of geysers or icy volcanoes. Dramatic geysers have been spotted on
Scientists think Ceres holds rock in its interior and is wrapped in a mantle of ice that, if melted, would amount to more fresh water than is contained on Earth.
Ceres was discovered in '1, more than a century before the 1930 discovery of the more famous - and more distant - dwarf planet Pluto.
It is one of the few places in the solar system, aside from Earth, where water has been located.
A big question about the discovery of the vapour on Ceres is what it means regarding the possibility of life.
"One of the things that's intriguing here is the possibility of there being liquid water as opposed to ice," said Marc |Rayman of
"Certainly all life that we know depends on water. So this is part of the larger question: 'Where can life exist?'"
He said it was too early to declare Ceres a good candidate for possible microbial life.
"I think that's a stretch. Rather, I'd say this indicates Ceres might be a good place to look to understand more about the places life could form - and perhaps places that life has formed. A lot more than just water is required for life. And whether Ceres has those other ingredients - which include, for example, a source of energy and all of the nutrients that life requires, the rest of the chemistry - it's too early to say."
Rayman said scientists planned to map the surface of Ceres, measure its surface|elevations, catalogue its minerals and study its interior structure. Dawn is due to arrive at Ceres in March or
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