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Ceres, a dwarf planet which lies between Mars and Jupiter, has a vast salty lake hidden beneath its surface.
Images from NASA 's Dawn spacecraft have revealed the existence of the bruny reservoir beneath a 20 million year old impact crater known as Occator. And there in speculation that the 600-mile wide mini-world could be home to some sort of life.
Dr Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator of the mission, said: "It suggests Ceres is an ocean world and may have been geologically active in the recent past."
Dawn made its way there after leaving the asteroid Vesta in 2012. It orbited Ceres from 2015 to 2018 – before running out of fuel.
In the final few months Dawn skimmed just 20 miles above the surface – focusing on the crater.
It performed imaging, scanning and gravity analysis at resolutions never before achieved at an icy body.
The observations are reported in seven papers published in Nature Astronomy, Nature Geoscience and Nature Communications.
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Dr Raymond's team believe the reservoir was created by the impact that created the crater.
This led to the the formation of deposits of salt on the planet's surface – which appear as bright spots.
Dr Raymond, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, said: "The existence of a deep-seated brine reservoir beneath Occator is supported by recent results from gravity data."
Salts lower the freezing point of water – increasing the likelihood of it being fluid.
Another paper described the detection of chloride salts – commonly found in sea ice – by instruments that mapped the crater using visible and infrared light.
It tops Cerealia Facula – a dome at the centre of the Occator crater. It's the first time the compound has been found beyond Earth.
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Lead author Dr Maria Cristina De Sanctis, of the National Institute of Astrophysics in Rome, said: "The formation requires the presence of liquid water in combination with hydro-thermal activity.
"The spatial distribution suggests chloride salts are the solid residue of deep brines that reached the surface in the last two million years – or are still ascending.
"These salts are very efficient in maintaining Ceres' warm internal temperature and lowering the temperature of the brines – in which case ascending salty fluids may exist today."
Ceres is almost 600 miles wide – making it the largest object in the asteroid belt.
It lies less than three times as far as Earth from the Sun – close enough to feel a little warmth, allowing ice to melt and reform.
Ceres was the first dwarf planet to be visited up-close. It belongs to a distinct class of objects – after the rocky inner planets like Earth and gas giants like Jupiter.
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The miniature world has fascinated astronomers for decades.
It's seen as being a potential record of the earliest moments of the solar system, and is thought to have a small iron core.
Ceres was considered a planet when it was discovered in 1801, before being downgraded as more of the asteroid belt was identified and then promoted to the status of dwarf planet after the 2006 debate about Pluto’s eligibility for planet status.
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Dr Julie Castillo-Rogez, a planetary scientist at Caltech who was not involved in any of the studies, said: "Long believed to be a primitive body, Ceres is now an ocean world with deep brines at a regional and potentially global scale.
"Further studies of Ceres' conditions and – above all – a follow-up mission are needed to study its evolution and potential habitability."
She said the findings also have implications for finding life on icy worlds – such as Jupiter's moons Europa and Ganymede.
NASA's Europa Clipper mission and the Jupiter Icy moons explorer (JUICE) are being launched in the coming decade.
Dr Castillo-Rogez said: "The next ten years of dwarf planet exploration requires focus to be brought onto habitability through time in these evolved oceans – which are likely to be rich in organic matter.
"Exposed natural salts in Occator provide direct sourcing of the deep brine below the crater and represent an obvious target for a future mission."
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