NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been moving closer to Ceres, the dwarf planet in the main asteroid belt which lies between Mars and Jupiter and is scheduled to enter its orbit on March 6. The mission has already sent stunning images of the planet, said NASA’s JPL.
Ceres dwarf planet has an average diameter of 950 km and is thought to contain a large amount of ice, which some scientists believe covers the surface an ocean.
“We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
New images show the dwarf planet at 27 pixels across, about three times better than the calibration images taken in early December. The best images of Ceres so far were taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004.
This most recent images from Dawn, taken Jan 13 this year at about 80 percent of Hubble resolution, were not quite as sharp. Over the next several weeks, Dawn will deliver increasingly better and better images of the dwarf planet, leading up to the spacecraft’s capture into orbit around Ceres March 6.
The images will continue to improve as the spacecraft spirals closer to the surface during its 16-month study of the dwarf planet. “Already, the (latest) images hint at first surface structures such as craters,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.
Dawn’s arrival at Ceres will mark the first time a spacecraft has ever visited a dwarf planet and has already delivered more than 30,000 images and many insights about Vesta, the second most massive body in the asteroid belt that wasexplored by it for more than a year, from 2011 to 2012. Dawn was launched in 2007.
“Orbiting both Vesta and Ceres would be truly impossible with conventional propulsion. Thanks to ion propulsion, we’re about to make history as the first spaceship ever to orbit two unexplored alien worlds,” Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, said.
Dawn is currently 640,000 km from Ceres, approaching the asteroid at around 725 km per hour and is scheduled to get into Ceres orbit on March 6, 2015, marking the first time ever a spacecraft has orbited two solar system targets.
After more than seven years cruising at stunning speeds, DAWN visited and explored protoplanet Vesta and will reach its second destination in the main asteroid belt, dwarf planet Ceres.
Announcing the success, JPL’s Institute of Technology said it would host an event on May 9, 2015 with games, contests, amid mission team members in southern California.
(With inputs from IANS)