The eight planets of the solar system (plus Pluto) hog all the attention, but lucky for us, NASA hasn’t forgotten about Ceres, the only dwarf planet that lies within the orbit of Neptune. At home in the asteroid belt (between Mars and Jupiter), Ceres is currently the object of fascination for NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which first entered the planet’s orbit in March 2015.
A year later, NASA is getting ready to fire up the probe’s Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND) to get a better understanding of the elemental composition of Ceres. With water on other planets being all the rage these days, scientists hope they may find a bit of that H2O lingering under the surface of the planet.
Dawn is currently floating around Ceres at about 240 miles above the surface. The probe has already confirmed that the dwarf planet is rich in water. The surface itself is most likely a mixture of water-ice and other solid minerals, but there are big suspicions that an internal ocean of liquid water is flowing below the surface.
That’s where GRaND comes in — to measure the activity of neutrons and gamma rays produced by cosmic ray interactions on the surface to map out the geochemical makeup of Ceres.
Although the data will only give a view of the topmost three feet of the surface, the data could play a pivotal role in helping scientists better understand the evolution of the planet and — more importantly — confirm whether water exists just below the surface.
And of course, the presence of liquid water always suggests there may have been — or could still be — signs of organic life. Here’s hoping we find some clues that show us where E.T. has been hiding on Ceres all this time.