The asteroid belt is comprised of the bits of rock that were left over after the formation of the Sun, the planets, and all the various moons that make up our solar system. It can be found orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. In essence, it is a wasteland of all the planets and moons that could have been, but never were.
The asteroids found here range in size from the smallest specks of dust; to behemoths that are several hundred miles wide (global killers, were they ever to head our way). Of these larger rocky bodies, scientists estimate that there are upwards of 1.1 million that are larger than 1 kilometer in diameter (about .6 miles). Since asteroids are generally airless, rocky worlds, you wouldn’t really expect conditions to be very suitable for life. And in all honesty, they aren’t—not human life, anyways.
However, life has been found to thrive in the most inhospitable circumstances (certain microorganisms, like the tardigrade, can even survive in the vacuum of space). Ultimately, no matter where we look on this planet, where there is liquid water, there is life. This fact makes the latest news from the Herschel space observatory all the more exciting. Scientists using this device have made the first definitive detection of water vapor on the largest object in the asteroid belt, the dwarf-planet — Ceres.
Of course, this does not mean that there is already life of Ceres; rather, it increases the *potential* for the development of life as we know it, and (in so doing) it makes future exploration of the dwarf planet infinitely more interesting. Indeed, this find couldn’t come at a better time, as NASA’s Dawn mission is on its way to Ceres now and is scheduled to arrive in the spring of 2015.
Previously, scientists theorized that there was water of Ceres, but they had no definite evidence to support this. However, Herschel’s far-infrared vision was able to finally give us a clear spectral signature of the water vapor. In the NASA press release, Michael Küppers, of the European Space Agency, notes the significance of this find, “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.” This definitive proof could have far ranging implications for future endeavors, as scientists believe Ceres contains a thick mantle of ice that, if melted, would amount to more than the totality of fresh water that is present on all of Earth (something to keep in mind in light of our planet’s building water crisis).
However, the strength of the signature varied and, at times, went out completely. Scientists think that this alteration is due to Ceres’ orbit. During the part of its orbit that it is closer to the Sun, the icy dwarf heats up and releases plumes of water at a rate of about 6 kilograms (13 pounds) per second. When Ceres is in the colder part of its orbit, no water escapes. The results are somewhat unexpected because comets (which are the icier cousins of asteroids) are frequently known to sprout jets and plumes, while objects in the asteroid belt (which are generally rather rocky) are not.
Of course, mining water from an asteroid would be an immensely difficult process. Nevertheless, this latest find is just further evidence of the impact that exploration has on our everyday lives, and the way that scientific discoveries could (someday) benefit humanity. It is also further evidence of why we need scientifically literate citizens.