Asteroid impacts on dwarf planet Ceres influenced the presence of organic aliphatic molecules

Ceres is a dwarf planet positioned in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It holds the distinction of being the first asteroid discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi on January 1, 1801, at the Palermo Astronomical Observatory in Sicily. Initially, it was announced as a new planet but was later reclassified, first as an asteroid and then as a dwarf planet. Unique to Ceres is its consistent location inside Neptune’s orbit. Given its relatively small size, Ceres is generally too faint to be visible to the naked eye, except under exceptionally dark sky conditions.

Dwarf planet
Image: (Wikimedia Commons/NASA)

A recent study suggests that the impact of asteroids colliding with the dwarf planet Ceres has played a crucial role in the presence of organic molecules on Ceres. According to astrophysicist Juan Rizos, these organic compounds might be more abundant and robust than previously assumed, thereby increasing Ceres’ astrobiological potential. This research was presented on October 17 at the Geological Society of America’s GSA Connects 2023 meeting. Ceres is identified as a high-priority target for a future sample return mission, as outlined in the 2023-2032 decadal survey for planetary science and astrobiology. Although such a mission could provide valuable insights into Ceres’ organics, it remains a few decades away.

The research team, based at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia in Spain, conducted comprehensive tests to simulate impact conditions similar to those on Ceres. These experiments were carried out at NASA’s Ames Vertical Gun Range in California, a facility specifically designed for analyzing the mechanics of asteroid impacts and impact cratering.

The research utilized a combination of data from the camera and imaging spectrometer aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, providing a more detailed mapping of areas on Ceres rich in organic material than ever before. The findings suggest a significant correlation between regions on Ceres with older impacts and the abundance of organic compounds. This implies that asteroids have played a role in shaping the organic composition of Ceres over billions of years. There is a high probability that a substantial reservoir of these organics exists within the dwarf planet itself, potentially in the presence of water. In a separate NASA mission named Lucy, which aims to probe 10 Trojan asteroids believed to contain clues about the origins of our solar system and Earth, researchers propose that comparing data from Lucy with information obtained by the Dawn spacecraft will deepen our understanding of how organic molecules are distributed in the outer solar system, as reported by