Home » SCIENCE » Dawn Inching Closer to Ceres Orbit, 2 Days Short of Rendezvous
This image was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin. Dawn is due to be captured into orbit around Ceres on March 6.

Dawn Inching Closer to Ceres Orbit, 2 Days Short of Rendezvous

NASA’s spacecraft Dawn is approaching its target Ceres dwarf planet as planned for a historic rendezvous set for Friday, March 6, 2015.

As the spacecraft is inching closer to the dwarf planet, it has sent new images captured about the dwarf planet Ceres, making the team on the earth excited and upbeat.

“Dawn is about to make history,” said Robert Mase, project manager for the Dawn mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Our team is ready and eager to find out what Ceres has in store for us.”

In fact, recent photographs sent by Dawn showed some craters and a couple of unusual bright spots that scientists believe would reveal whether its surface is changing and if so how. As the Dawn spirals into a closer orbiting range of the dwarf planet, researchers will start looking for signs of strange features which would suggest an ongoing geological activity.

“Studying Ceres allows us to do historical research in space, opening a window into the earliest chapter in the history of our solar system,” said Jim Green of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

Ever since its final approach to Ceres began in December, the spacecraft has taken several optical navigation images and made two rotations with its full 9-hour rotation. From January 25, Dawn has sent some of the highest-resolution images of Ceres ever captured, showing the vicinity of the dwarf planet with its mysterious bright spots.

Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi spotted Ceres in 1801 and it was initially classified as a planet and later called an asteroid. In 2006, it was designated a dwarf planet, along with Pluto and Eris.

Named after the Roman goddess of agriculture and harvests, Ceres will be explored by the Dawn spacecraft that was sent in 2007 via another giant asteroid Vesta that it reached in 2011 and 2012 and observed it for 14 month before making headway for Ceres. Both Vesta and Ceres orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter.

The new mechanism used by NASA in Dawn spacecraft called ion propulsion system helped the scientists to make the mission a two-stop tour of our solar system. Both of them are on their way to becoming planets, but their development was interrupted by the gravity of Jupiter, explained Carol Raymond, Dawn deputy principal investigator at JPL.

“These two bodies are like fossils from the dawn of the solar system, and they shed light on its origins,” said Raymond.

Ceres and Vesta vary in many aspects. Ceres is the most massive body measuring 590 miles (950 km diameter) and its surface covers about 38% of the area of the continental United States. Ceres is estimated to be 25 percent water by mass.

This artist's concept shows NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn's framing cameras. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn’s framing cameras. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Vesta, is smaller, with an average diameter of 326 miles (525 km) though it is second most massive body in the asteroid belt. Ceres is estimated to be 25 percent water by mass.

“By studying Vesta and Ceres, we will gain a better understanding of the formation of our solar system, especially the terrestrial planets and most importantly the Earth,” said Raymond. “These bodies are samples of the building blocks that have formed Venus, Earth and Mars. Vesta-like bodies are believed to have contributed heavily to the core of our planet, and Ceres-like bodies may have provided our water.”

“We would not be able to orbit and explore these two worlds without ion propulsion,” Mase said. “Dawn capitalizes on this innovative technology to deliver big science on a small budget.”

After the Dawn, NASA is planning to launch its Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft in 2016 to study a large asteroid in unprecedented detail and also return the samples to Earth.

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