Dwarf Planet Ceres May Have a Huge Ocean That Could Support Life

AP

Is there life out there? You can add dwarf planet Ceres to the list of planets and moons in our own solar system backyard that might be harboring some.

Scientists have detected ice on the planet's surface, which could mean Ceres is hiding an ocean below its frozen crust.

Source: Uncredited/AP
Source: Uncredited/AP

Where There's Water, There Might Be Life

When NASA's Dawn spacecraft was first approaching Ceres, a rocky planet that sits in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, it saw plumes of water vapor rising from the surface. 

"If we have water in liquid form, could we have life?" planetary scientist Timothy Titus told Scientific American. "It's one of the more exciting things with these plumes, that they could be a potential exobiology target."

But after the probe finally arrived at Ceres in March 2015, we didn't see any more plumes. It looked like the planet may not hold water after all.

But now scientists have just spotted evidence of water ice inside Ceres' Oxo crater. They announced the discovery at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

The ice deposit is younger than the crater, which is estimated to be 8 million years old, so whatever smashed into Ceres and formed the crater didn't bring the ice with it. One explanation is that a landslide exposed pieces of an ice sheet.

The discovery is exciting because the presence of an ice sheet could mean Ceres has a giant, sub-surface ocean of liquid water, like Europa or Enceladus. And where there's water, there might be life.

Scientists will collect more data to determine if Ceres is frozen solid, or if an ocean is churning beneath an icy shell.

h/t Scientific American