European scientists are reporting the dwarf planet Ceres, located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, has been releasing water vapour from two locations, begging the question of whether or not it may be hospitable to life.
This is the first time that vapour has been detected not only on Ceres but any on object in the asteroid belt.
This proves that the dwarf planet has its own atmosphere, Michael Kuppers of the European Space Agency told CBC news.
Through the use of the European Space Agency’s Herschel space telescope, researchers were able to witness plumes of water vapour leaving the planet’s surface periodically.
The cause of the vapour releases is yet to be confirmed, but it is believed that when Ceres orbits closest to the sun, it forces the frozen surface to melt straight to vapour, skipping the liquid stage. Ceres orbits the sun every 4.6 years.
The plumes appear to be contained to two specific areas of the planet. As the planet orbits, so do the clouds of vapour, leading scientists to believe these areas of release do not change.
While monitoring the planet, scientists observed there was also a period of time where the vapour did not appear. This has led to speculation that there may be a seasonal effect.
Even before the water discovery, NASA had planned to send a spacecraft, named Dawn, to Ceres in February of 2015. Dawn’s voyage is set to begin at the beginning of Ceres orbit when it is at its furthest point from the sun.
This discovery is also important due to the natural resource possibilities. Astronomers told CBC that if the frozen surface of Ceres were to melt entirely, it would contain more fresh water than the plant Earth.
The Herschel Space Observatory says that between 2011 and 2013 alone, the dwarf planet released 13.2 pounds of water per second into space.