Last year scientists behind NASA’s Dawn mission revealed the presence of life-building carbon compounds in the asteroid belt on Ceres.
The presence of organic material was touted a major discovery by NASA but not enough to announce the presence of potential alien life.
Scientists at Brown University have now re-analysed NASA’s data to suggest the US space agency was mistaken and Ceres, which is rich in frozen water, contains higher concentrations of organic matter than assumed.
Dr Hannah Kaplan who presented the claim to the journal Geophysical Research Letters while at Brown, said her estimates were four to five times higher than those of NASA’s.
She said: “What this paper shows is that you can get really different results depending upon the type of organic material you use to compare with and interpret the Ceres data.
“That’s important not only for Ceres, but also for missions that will soon explore asteroids that may also contain organic material.”
The presence of organic material is not direct proof extraterrestrial life forms are roaming the galaxy but scientists agree life cannot exist without them.
NASA first discovered the presence of carbon compounds on Ceres by scanning the dwarf planet with a Visible and Infrared (VIR) Spectrometer on the Dawn space probe.
The Spectrometer analysed the different patterns and frequencies in which sunlight interacts with Ceres’ surface to get an idea of the planet’s chemical composition.
NASA’s research team compared the data with organic rocks back on Earth to develop a standard against which it would conduct further scans.
But Dr Kaplan’s teams chose extraterrestrial meteorites as the go-to comparison standard, which yielded different results in the tests.
The space expert said: “What we find is that if we model the Ceres data using extraterrestrial organics, which may be a more appropriate analog than those found on Earth, then we need a lot more organic matter on Ceres to explain the strength of the spectral absorption that we see there.
“We estimate that as much as 40 to 50 percent of the spectral signal we see on Ceres is explained by organics.
“That’s a huge difference compared to the six to 10 percent previously reported based on terrestrial organic compounds.”
Ralph Milliken, an associate professor at Brown, said scientists will now have to figure out why the organic compounds are so abundant on Ceres.
One theory suggests the dwarf planet was pummelled with organics rich asteroids while another assumes the organics developed naturally.
Dr Milliken said the asteroid belt planet is a “fascinating object” but truly undressing the origin of its organic compounds will require further space missions.
NASA announced a very similar discovery on June 7 this year after the Mars Curiosity rover unearthed the presence of organic material hidden away in ancient Martian rocks.
Firouz Naderi, NASA’s former director of Solar System Exploration, praised the historic milestone in the space agency’s hunt for alien life.
He said: “The Holy Grail. Ever since we landed on Mars, we have been looking for organic molecules— the complex carbon chains that on Earth form the building blocks of life.
“Today NASA reported Curiosity rover has finally detected them. Not life but we are a step closer.”