Liquid water is considered the single most important factor in our search for extra terrestrial life, so the recent discovery of vaporous H2O spewing from a dwarf planet here in the solar system has Earthbound astronomers over the moon.
"This is the first time water vapor has been unequivocally detected on Ceres or any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere," wrote Michael Küppers, of the European Space Agency and lead author of the study, which was recently published in the journal Nature.
The team employed the Herschel space observatory, the largest infrared telescope ever launched, to make the discovery. The Herschel's 3.5m wide mirror — the largest single mirror ever installed on an IR space telescope — is typically used to detect long-wavelength radiation from extremely distant and exceptionally cold objects. However, when the ESA team trained the telescope on Ceres a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, they were amazed to discover plumes of water vapour emanating from it.
Ceres, which measures about 950km wide, was originally classified as an asteroid when it was initially spotted in 1801, but is now considered a dwarf planet given its size and roundness — it's bigger than the asteroids around it but smaller than proper planets.
The ESA team hypothesises that the vapour may be a by-product of the sun-facing side of the object heating the dwarf planet's icy crust or that it may be the result of geysers, ice volcanoes, or other form of cryovolcanism, as found on Saturn's moon, Enceladus. No matter what the cause, researchers will be able to take a closer look at this mysterious object when NASA's Dawn probe, which has spent the last year inspecting the nearby Vesta asteroid, arrives there next year. There's no telling what else they might find. [NASA via Universe today]