Turns out the biggest object in the asteroid belt has a few surprises up its sleeve. Wednesday, researchers working with the European Space Agency announced the dwarf planet Ceres is spewing water vapor into space.
The findings, published in the journal Nature, came from ESA's Herschel space observatory, which was shut down last year. The spacecraft saw a small amount of water fizzing off into space from Ceres' surface.
The lead researcher said, "This is the first time that water has been detected in the asteroid belt, and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere." (Via European Space Agency)
Finding water anywhere new in our solar system is a pretty big deal. For one, it tells scientists about how our solar system formed. But what's more interesting to the general public: It's the first sign that a planet could contain life.
Moons like Jupiter's Europa are a high priority for exploration for just that reason. Last month the Hubble Space Telescope detected water vapor coming from the moon's surface. But now that Ceres is known to have water, too, one planetary scientist tells NBC: "This raises the possibility that Ceres could replace Europa as the prime target for planetary investigation. ... It's going to upend the cart a bit, but that's science." (Via NASA)
And what great timing! NASA already has a probe on its way.
The Dawn spacecraft launched in 2007 with the goal of exploring the asteroid belt and mapping the largest objects. It's scheduled to reach Ceres in early 2015. (Via NASA)
Ceres is the smallest dwarf planet, a new classification for space objects that also includes Pluto.