A NASA spacecraft, the Dawn probe, has just discovered a hidden ocean in our Solar System. Specifically in Ceres, which is located within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Before running out of fuel in 2018, Dawn soared 35 kilometers above the surface of this little world. Scientists are still studying the data they collected.

Sodium carbonate

Dawn already helped researchers discover that bright spots were covered in a compound called sodium carbonate, which is made up of sodium, carbon and oxygen. That salty crust likely came from a liquid that evaporated on the surface of Ceres..

The bright regions Dawn studied are within Ceres’s Occator Crater; the salt deposits are called Cerealia Facula and Vinalia Faculae. They are only 2 million years old, and Dawn researchers believe that the geological process that created them is still ongoing.

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But the origin of the liquid remained a mystery until this Monday, when a series of documents finally revealed that the salty water had seeped to the surface of the dwarf planet from an underground reservoir some 40 kilometers deep and hundreds of kilometers wide. As explained Carol raymond, Principal Investigator of the Dawn mission: “This elevates Ceres to the category of ‘ocean world’.

The finding places the dwarf planet, along with Enceladus (an icy moon of Saturn) and Europe (an icy moon of Jupiter), in the group of worlds with subsurface oceans. Like them, Ceres is now a competitor for harboring extraterrestrial life.

It is the first time that we find real evidence of extraterrestrial carbon in terrestrial rocks

But the forces that allow Enceladus and Europa to maintain their oceans are not the same for Ceres. The other two ocean worlds feel a strong gravitational pull from their planets: As Saturn and Jupiter orbit, those massive bodies stretch and compress the moons, generating friction that heats the moons from the inside. But in the case of Ceres, asteroid impacts may have played a role.

Namely, asteroid impacts may have briefly kept the dwarf planet warm enough for liquid water to persist below its surface. Scientists believe that the salty underground water they discovered through Dawn may be a surviving remnant of a global ocean that froze when Ceres got cold.

In the short period of time when conditions were warm enough, life may have emerged.

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