Dwarf planet is possible new source of life in our solar system

Posted Dec 25, 2014 by Stephen Morgan
A potential new source of alien life in our own solar system will be explored by a NASA probe in March 2015. Scientists think that the so-called "dwarf planet," Ceres, could have the right conditions for life to exist and may even be habitable for humans.
The dwarf planet Ceres  also the largest asteroid in the solar system  is seen here in an amazing vi...
The dwarf planet Ceres, also the largest asteroid in the solar system, is seen here in an amazing view from the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA, ESA, J. Parker (Southwest Research Institute), L. McFadden (University of Maryland)
In three months time, NASA's Dawn spacecraft will move into orbit around Ceres. Situated in the asteroid belt between between Mars and Jupiter, it is classified as a "dwarf planet", like Pluto. But unlike Pluto, Ceres has a relatively warm and moist atmosphere and scientists are saying it has an equally good chance of supporting life as other candidates in our solar system, like Jupiter's three moons, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede or Saturn's moons, Enceladus and Titan.
The Solar System  including the objects in question during the IAU s recent planet definition debate...
The Solar System, including the objects in question during the IAU's recent planet definition debate : Ceres, Pluto-Charon, and Eris.
The International Astronomical Union/Martin Kornmesser quotes Jian-Yang Li, of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who said recently at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union. "I don't think Ceres is less interesting in terms of astrobiology than other potentially habitable worlds,"
Once considered a large asteroid and later reclassified as a dwarf planet, Ceres is small, only about 590 miles (950 kilometers) wide, approximately the size of Texas. However, it seems to contain a huge amount of water density - 2.09 grams per cubic centimeter; compared to 5.5 g/cubic cm for Earth. Up to 40% of its volume could be made of water. Li called it "the largest water reservoir in the inner solar system other than the Earth."
Li added that Ceres receives a considerable amount of energy from solar heating. It is just 2.8 astronomical units (AU) from the sun. (One AU is the distance between Earth and the sun — about 93 million miles, or 150 million km). This is far better than other alien life candidates like Europa and Enceladus, which are 5.2 and 9 AU, respectively. This makes it about three times further than the Earth from the sun, but sufficiently close enough for its rays to melt ice and let it reform.
Scientists believe that Ceres has a rocky core. Water-bearing minerals have also been detected. However, they are not really sure how much of this water is liquid or ice and an ocean could exist below its surface.
Diagram showing a possible internal structure of Ceres
Diagram showing a possible internal structure of Ceres
Early last year, Mail Online reported that the European Space Agency's Herschel telescope observed water gushing from its surface. They think this may be coming from geysers or ice volcanoes spewing out water rather than molten rock.
Dr Michael Kuppers, of the ESA's lab in Villanueva de la Canada in Spain, told the Mail Online that infrared images had picked up chemical signatures of water vapour "originating from localised sources that seem to be linked to mid-latitude regions." The water evaporation could come from ice near the surface or volcanoes erupting 'volatiles such as water instead of molten rocks,' he said.
Discovery News says that "both (Jupiter's) Europa and (Saturn's) Enceladus possess stores of internal heat, which is generated by tidal forces. This heat keeps the ice-covered moons' subsurface oceans of liquid water from freezing up, and also drives the eruption of water-vapor plumes on Enceladus."
Scientists are not yet quite sure if the plumes of water vapour on Ceres are coming from an internal heat source or are the result of surface water evaporating from sunlight and they hope that the NASA probe will clarify this.
The Huffington Post says that the Dawn probe will start studying Ceres at an orbit of 9,000 miles in March and then, through to next November, it will make progressively closer orbits, until it gets to about 200 miles above the surface. This will allow it to take thousands of images and create a map of the Ceres surface.
Li says that Ceres seems to have the three key ingredients for life: liquid water, an energy source and chemicals such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Scientists are even looking at it as a potential candidate for human colonisation.