VestaThe European Space Agency was in the news the other day related to the reactivation of a spacecraft called Rosetta that is on a decade long journey to the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Once it arrives in May it will enter orbit around the comet and eventually dispatch a lander to examine the surface in greater detail.

Today, the ESA released photographs taken from its orbiting infrared telescope Herschel of the dwarf planet Ceres which orbits the Sun in a belt along with millions of other asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. The photographs show plumes of water vapour shooting from Ceres’ ice-covered surface. Scientists aren’t sure what mechanism is causing the periodic outbursts from two locations on the otherwise frozen world. But the presence of liquid water on Ceres which, at 950 km in diameter is roughly one-third the size of the Moon, is regarded as significant as water is a key precursor for the development of life.

The odds of Ceres having life, most likely in microbial form, are long. But it is yet another indication that Earth is far from alone — even in the solar system, let alone the Milky Way galaxy — as far as possessing building blocks required to produce life.

Scientists will have an opportunity to learn more when the NASA spacecraft Dawn arrives at Ceres next February. Dawn was launched in 2007 and has already visited the second-largest dwarf planet in the asteroid belt Vesta (pictured). Now, it’s on its way to the largest — Ceres.