First Detection of Water Ice and Organics on an Asteroid: A Possible Link to the Origin of Earth's Water

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date


Publication Title

American Astronomical Society, Department of Planetary Sciences


We report the detection of water ice and organics on the surface of asteroid 24 Themis. Our rotationally-resolved infrared (2-4 µm) spectra of this asteroid indicate that the ice and organics are widespread on its surface. The spectral difference with other asteroids observed in the same manner, makes 24 Themis unique so far. Our identification of water ice and organic compounds on this asteroid agrees with independent results (Rivkin and Emery 2010). At first glance, the presence of any surface ice on 24 Themis, particularly over a significant fraction of its surface, is puzzling because of the instability for exposed water ice at Themis's heliocentric distance ( 3.2 AU). Nevertheless, there are several possible sources for this unstable ice and identifying them is likely to be diagnostic of other processes on primitive asteroids. The presence of water ice on 24 Themis supports the idea that ice sublimation drives the cometary activity in two small members of the Themis dynamical family, labeled "Main Belt comets” by Hsieh and Jewitt (2006). It also helps to address other relevant questions, such as, how abundant is water ice in the outer asteroid belt and where was the "snow” line when the solar system formed? The answers to these questions could transform current views of primitive asteroids, delivery of water and organic molecules to Earth, and models of Solar System formation. This research was published in the April 29, 2010 issue of the journal Nature.