Dawn begins its science orbit tomorrow to begin unlocking the mysteries of one of the largest non-planetary bodies in our solar system.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has just snapped a spectacular new photo of the dwarf planet Ceres about 21,000 miles away from its surface as it prepares to get up and close and personal to begin its scientific orbit.
The photos show the sunlit north pole of Ceres and are the highest resolution views of Ceres so far, with upcoming images likely to show even more features on the surface of the mini-planet, according to a Space Daily report.
Dawn made its much-anticipated arrival at Ceres on March 6, the first time a spacecraft has orbited a dwarf planet, previously visiting the giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months about three years ago — another first, as no spacecraft has ever orbited two extraterrestrial bodies.
Ceres has a diameter of 590 miles and is the largest object in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn has been maneuvering into position to begin its first science orbit of Ceres tomorrow. It will stay about 8,400 miles from its surface until May 9, when it will get even closer to Ceres.
One thing NASA’s Dawn spacecraft team hope to learn more about is the mysterious bright white spot on the surface of Ceres. Astronomers have a lot of ideas of what it might be, but no firm theories on exactly what it might be from. Some have guessed that it represents chunks of ice, while others have offered volcanoes or geysers as a possibility.
Although a new infrared image has provided better resolution of that spot, it has only deepened the mystery behind it, according to a Business Insider report. Images have shown two neighboring spots, but under infrared light, they disappear completely.
This may be because the Dawn spacecraft hasn’t gotten close enough yet, or it may be because it’s an ice plume. Again, it’s something that will hopefully be solved as Dawn begins its orbit around Ceres.
Tomorrow, Dawn will finish maneuvering into place and will settle into permanent orbit around Ceres, getting closer and closer and hopefully uncovering more and more of the secrets it is hiding.
Dawn was launched by NASA back in September 2007 with the mission of studying Vesta and Ceres, two of three known protoplanets in the asteroid belt.
Dawn entered Vesta’s orbit in July 2011 and spent 14 months surveying the asteroid before heading for Ceres in late 2012, which it reached last month. It will stay in orbit around Ceres perpetually after it completes its mission.
NASA’s Jets Propulsion Laboratory is running the Dawn mission, and European partners from the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy have supplied components for the mission. It is the first NASA mission to use ion propulsion, which is what enabled it to break out of Vesta’s gravitational pull and head for Ceres. Previous spacecraft have used conventional drives and could only do fly-bys, such as the Voyager program.
Dawn won’t be the only spacecraft that is set to visit a dwarf planet this year. The New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to head to the former planet of Pluto a few months from now.
Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt and is composed of rock and ice. At 590 miles in diameter, it has one third of the mass of the entire asteroid belt, and it is the only dwarf planet in the inner Solar System. It is also round because of its own gravity, the only known object in the belt that can claim that. It was discovered in January 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi in Palermo, Italy, and was initially considered to be a planet. However, it was considered to be too small to be a planet at less than 600 miles; by comparison, Pluto — which had been downgraded from planet status — is nearly 1,500 miles in diameter.