As Dawn delves into the unknown orbit of Ceres next month, some photos of Ceres with a resolution of 8.5 miles per pixel have revealed the white spots clearly, heightening the mystery surrounding the largest asteroid in the solar family.
Part of NASA’s Discovery Program, Dawn has orbited one member of the main asteroid belt, Vesta last year and is now heading to explore a second new world, dwarf planet Ceres.
Fitted with ion propulsion technology, Dawn’s journey spanning about eight years has been made possible first time after the successful testing of it on NASA’s Deep Space 1 mission.
Ion propulsion allowed NASA to send Dawn into deeper solar space exploration which would otherwise be unaffordable and impossible with a more conventional propulsion system.
Equipped with two large solar panels, stretching approximately 19.7 meters (65 feet) from tip to tip, its collects enormous energy from the distant Sun. The ion engine then ionizes the onboard fuel, xenon, giving the acceleration to the ions, which, in turn, accelerate the spacecraft.
The Dawn spacecraft has taken the latest pictures when it is 90,000 miles away from the orbit of Ceres but showing the surface of varying textures, craters including a well-formed circular one in its South Polar Region.
NASA said Dawn’s photos of Ceres are of a resolution of 8.5 miles per pixel, the most-detailed snaps of the dwarf planet captured to date.
The Dwan spacecraft is scheduled to study Ceres once it enters the orbit next and continue till July this year. The Dawn mission is a joint effort of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Germany’s Max Planck Institute and the Italian Space Agency.
The news Ceres also coincides with another space mission by the New Horizons which is nearing its target Pluto, now demoted to dwarf world.
Ceres and Vesta reside in the main asteroid belt, the extensive region between Mars and Jupiter, along with many other smaller bodies, says NASA. With different evolutionary paths, influenced by the first few million years of solar system evolution, the study will bring to light the formation stage of any planet in our solar system.
When it really enters the orbit of CERES, the Dawn mission will journey back in time over 4.5 billion years to the beginning of our Solar System, says NASA, hoping that this “time travel” would reveal thousands of small bodies orbiting the Sun in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
These asteroid formed at the same time and in similar environments as the other planets like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars and scientists theorize that the asteroids were budding planets and never given the opportunity to grow, due to gravitational stirring by massive Jupiter.
Sometimes called minor planets, asteroids contain clues that reveal the conditions, which would have influenced even the Earth in its formation period and NASA is set to probe it further.
Ceres was first discovered by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801 and he though it was a new planet.