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Geology of Ceres illuminates origin of organics


NASA's Dawn spacecraft recently detected organic-rich areas on Ceres. Scientists evaluated the geology of the regions to conclude that the organics are most likely native to the dwarf planet. Data from the spacecraft suggest that the interior of Ceres is the source of these organic materials, as opposed to arriving via impacting asteroids or comets, according to a paper published in Science.

Geology of Ceres illuminates origin of organics
SwRI scientists are studying the geology associated with the organic-rich areas on Ceres. Dawn spacecraft data show
 a region around the Ernutet crater where organic concentrations have been discovered (labeled “a” through “f”). 
The color coding shows the strength of the organics absorption band, with warmer colors indicating the 
highest concentrations [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF/MPS/DLR/IDA]
"This discovery of a locally high concentration of organics is intriguing, with broad implications for the astrobiology community," said Dr. Simone Marchi, a senior research scientist at Southwest Research Institute and one of the authors of the paper. "Ceres has evidence of ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, salts, and now organic materials. With this new finding Dawn has shown that Ceres contains key ingredients for life."

Geology of Ceres illuminates origin of organics
This enhanced color composite image, made with data from the framing camera aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft, 
shows the area around Ernutet Crater. The bright red portions appear redder with respect to the rest of Ceres 
[Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA]
Ceres is believed to have originated about 4.5 billion years ago at the dawn of our solar system. Studying its organics can help explain the origin, evolution, and distribution of organic species across the solar system. Data from Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer show an unusually high concentration of organic matter close to the 50-km diameter Ernutet crater in the northern hemisphere of Ceres. The distribution and characteristics of the organics seem to preclude association with any single crater. The largest concentration appears to drape discontinuously across the southwest floor and rim of Ernutet and onto an older, highly degraded crater. Other organic-rich areas are scattered to the northwest. While other scientists looked at the distribution and spectra of the materials, Marchi focused on the geological settings.

Geology of Ceres illuminates origin of organics
This enhanced color composite image from Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer shows 
the area around Ernutet Crater on Ceres [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF]
"The overall region is heavily cratered and appears to be ancient; however, the rims of Ernutet crater appear to be relatively fresh," Marchi said. "The organic-rich areas include carbonate and ammoniated species, which are clearly Ceres' endogenous material, making it unlikely that the organics arrived via an external impactor."

Ceres shows clear signatures of pervasive hydrothermal activity, aqueous alteration and fluid mobility, so the organic-rich areas may be the result of internal processes. Dawn scientists will continue to study the dwarf planet to identify a viable method for transporting such material from the interior to the surface in the pattern observed.

Source: Southwest Research Institute [February 17, 2017]
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