Nick Statt
January 22, 2014

For the very first time, water vapor has been detected on an object in the asteroid belt, providing definitive proof that Ceres, the dwarf planet, contains both an atmosphere and a surface of ice. If that ice were to melt, scientists postulate, the tiny planet only 590 miles in diameter may possibly contain more freshwater than all of Earth.

The discovery, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, was made by a team at the European Space Agency (ESA) under the Herschel mission, using the infrared telescope of the same name — the largest, most powerful ever to fly in space — to help scientists study the evolution of the universe and its various celestial components. Herschel also is pivotal in contributing to coinciding NASA projects, namely the mission seeing the Dawn spacecraft to Ceres at this very moment.

“We’ve got a spacecraft on the way to Ceres, so we don’t have to wait long before getting more context on this intriguing result, right from the source itself,” Carol Raymond, the deputy principal investigator for Dawn at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a press release on the discovery. “Dawn will map the geology and chemistry of the surface in high-resolution, revealing the processes that drive the outgassing activity.”

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