Scientists looking for life beyond Earth have a new target relatively close to home.
The dwarf planet Ceres, which orbits in the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, has organic compounds on its surface, a paper published in this week's Science shows.
The discovery, made with NASA's orbiting Dawn spacecraft, follows earlier findings that the 590-mile wide Ceres may have an ocean beneath its frozen surface.
"There are speculations about a subsurface ocean on Ceres, similar to Europa or Enceladus," planetary scientist Michael Kuppers, with the European Space Astronomy Center in Madrid, told Seeker.
Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon circling Saturn, are two prime targets in the search for life beyond Earth.
"I do think Ceres is a good target for searches for life outside Earth," Kuppers said. "In addition to distance, the radiation environment is more benign than, for example, Europa."
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Dawn lead scientist Christopher Russell, with the University of California Los Angeles, said the discovery means that Ceres should be further explored, but noted that these organic molecules "are a long way from microbial life."