TECH
10/09/2013 11:53 BST

Nasa 'Dawn' Mission To Ceres Hopes To Find Water, Ice And Maybe Even Life

Nasa's search for extra-terrestrial life will take another exploratory step forward in March 2015 when the Dawn satellite reaches the dwarf planet, Ceres.

Scientists believe there is a chance the celestial body could contain large amounts of water - a crucial ingredient for life.

In a Google Plus Hangout, Julie Castillo-Rogez, planetary scientist from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: "I think of Ceres actually as a game changer in the Solar System.

ceres planet

Ceres and the smaller asteroid, Vesta

"Ceres is arguably the only one of its kind.

"Underneath this dusty, dirty, clay-type surface, we think that Ceres might be icy. It could potentially have had an ocean at one point in its history."

Ceres was discovered in 1801. It is so large it contains one-third of all the mass in the asteroid belt in which it is located and was and initially classified as a planet.

Unfortunately for Ceres it was downgraded to a large asteroid but was then redeemed slightly when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet after Pluto got the same title in 2006.

Because Ceres is thought o be so old it is hoped it will give a insight into the early formation of the solar system.

Christopher T. Russell, UCLA professor of geophysics and space physics, said: "Dawn is also a journey back in time.

"Ceres and Vesta have been altered much less than other bodies. The Earth is changing all the time; the Earth hides its history, but we believe that Ceres and Vesta, formed more than 4.6 billion years ago, have preserved their early record.

"They're revealing information that was frozen into their ancient surfaces. By looking at the surface and how it was modified by the bombardment of meteoroids, we will get an idea of what the early conditions of Ceres and Vesta were and how they changed. So Dawn is a history trip too.

"We're going back in time to the early solar system."

ceres planet

The Dawn spacecraft

Dawn's instruments include a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer that can detect the hydrogen from water.

Evidence of whether water still exists on Ceres could come from frost or vapour on the surface, and possibly liquid water under the surface. The water kept Ceres cool throughout its evolution.

Ceres, named for the Roman goddess of agriculture, revolves around the sun every 4.6 terrestrial years and has an average diameter of approximately 600 miles.

A roughly round object, Ceres orbits the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, approximately 258 million miles from Earth. Ceres is much larger than Vesta — more than two times further across, with a volume eight or nine times greater — but is less dense, as the material in it is lighter.