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ISSN: 2332-2519
Journal of Astrobiology & Outreach
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Astrobiology on the Dwarf Planet Ceres

Chandra Wickramasinghe1,2,3*
1Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology (BCAB), Buckingham University, UK
2Institute for the Study of Panspermia and Astroeconomics, Gifu, Japan
3University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, Sri Lanka
Corresponding Author : Wickramasinghe NC
Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology (BCAB)
Buckingham University, UK
Tel: +44-777-838-9243
E-mail: [email protected]
Received March 07, 2015; Accepted March 09, 2015; Published March 11, 2015
Citation: Chandra Wickramasinghe (2015) Astrobiology on the Dwarf Planet Ceres. Astrobiol Outreach 3:e108. doi:10.4172/2332-2519.1000e108
Copyright: ©2015 Chandra Wickramasinghe. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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Keywords
Ceres; Dwarf planets; Microbiology; Panspermia; Fred Hoyle
Introduction
In a remarkable instance of serendipity the present centenary year of Fred Hoyle (1915-2015) has been marked by several landmark developments in astrobiology. Fred Hoyle was the iconic astrophysicist of the 20th century who arguably pioneered modern astrobiology, and in particular ideas relating to panspermia [1]. Several recent developments in astrobiology, all pointing to the vindication of panspermia, have been discussed elsewhere in this journal [2-4].
The dwarf planet Ceres (perihelion 2.56AU; aphelion 2.98AU), which is located in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, may not have ranked high as a candidate for astrobiological exploration. This changed, however, after emissions of water vapour were discovered by the Herschel Space Telescope [5].
Ceres is a roughly spherical planetary body comprised of a silicate/iron core surrounded by an extensive ice mantle of radius approximately 500 km [6]. An average surface temperature of minus 100 degrees C and low gravity will not permit the persistence of water vapour in its atmosphere; nor could there be an appreciable rate of H2O sublimation from a surface at such a low temperature. Observations with the Herschel telescope revealing plumes of water vapor emerging at a prodigious rate of 6 kg per second from localized regions of Ceres thus came as a surprise [5]. These observations are consistent, however, with the build-up of pockets of high pressure gas in subsurface lakes that are occasionally vented though cracks and fissures in weak spots of the overlying ice.
For an object of the size of Ceres, the heat released by the decay of radioactive nuclides (26Al, 60Fe, 238U) will serve to melt large volumes of interior ice. It is a fair bet that these interior lakes would be replete with organic molecules serving as habitats for heteroautotrophic microorganisms. Due to the very low thermal conductivity of overlying ice (and organics) subsurface lakes would remain in a warm liquid state for timescales that are well in excess of the age of the solar system [7]. A possible explanation for the water vapour emission from Ceres is similar to that described earlier to explain similar processes in comets [8]. Biological activity in warm subsurface lakes leads to the build-up of high enough pressures of gaseous metabolites to occasionally rupture overlying layers of ice.
The recently reported discovery of exceptionally bright spots in the basin of a 92 km-wide crater may provide startling evidence of this process (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4491). The image released by NASA is reproduced in (Figure 1). It could be argued that pressure-induced fissures in the crater floor have recently refrozen to produce smooth icy regions of diameter << 10 km, the resolution limit claimed for this image. Smooth, clean ice and snow would possess a very high albedo and contrast sharply with a dust covered dirty icesiliceous surface. This could explain the bright spots. The spacecraft Dawn, that took the image in (Figure 1), is now securely in orbit around Ceres. We may hope that the mystery of the bright spots will be solved in the near future, and that the astrobiology of this dwarf planet will be established on a firm footing.
Watch this space!
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