Dawn Orbiting Ceres: First Impressions Promising for Life Signs

The Dawn spacecraft is now safely ensconced in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres and the transmission of usable and interesting scientific data and imagery has begun in earnest. This is an enormously exciting event for those of us who are interested in space science and exploration. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt.

Photo of Ceres, largest object in asteroid belt, seen from spacecraft Dawn and showing two bright spots

BRIGHT SPOTS on Ceres appear to be evidence of outgasing, which may suggest water beneath surface

As the Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres a couple of weeks ago, scientists were surprised to observe two bright objects on its surface. As it drew closer and achieved orbit, these bright spots were discovered to be at the base of a crater but they remain visible even when the rim of the crater would be expected to be blocking the view. This results in a tentative but plausible conclusion that the spots are connected to what is called “outgasing,” the process of gases beneath the surface of Ceres emitting plumes of gas. This might well indicate the presence of water on Ceres, one of the basic requirements for the presence of any form of carbon-based life such as we Earthlings are familiar with and naively expect all interplanetary life to resemble.

There’s been a lot in the popular mass media about the mission but if you want to dig into what’s really going on and what it means, I suggest you check out the Lunary and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) Web site. Scientists involved in the mission gave a series of talks yesterday drilling into great detail and sharing a lot of information about the surface, mapping, geology, and other amazingly fascinating stuff.

This is proving to be one of the most important space science missions in our nation’s history of exploration.

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