NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is orbiting around the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the Main Asteroid Belt, and will continue it’s observations for the next 16 months.
Ceres is still a mystery for astronomers, even if it was first discovered more than 200 years ago.
The Dawn spacecraft has completed it’s 3.1 billion miles in seven and a half years, and NASA officials got a signal confirming that it has begun orbiting Ceres.
The Dawn mission, which cost $473 million, was launched in September 2007, to study Vesta an Ceres, the main objects in the asteroid belt, which lies between planets Mars and Jupiter. Vesta has a diameter of 330 miles, while Ceres in a larger, at 590 miles wide.
Both dwarf planets are reminiscences of the solar system’s early days, and scientists think they would have developed into planets if it wasn’t for Jupiter’s huge gravitational power.
Dawn has already visited Vesta, which it orbited between July 2011 and September 2012. The spacecraft is the first to orbit two objects other than the Earth-moon system. NASA’s Dawn has an innovative propulsion system, which generates small amounts of thrust with the help of accelerated xenon ions, which makes it 10 times more efficient than the regular chemical-based systems.
Ceres has intrigued researchers because it looks more like the icy moons of Jupiter or Saturn, standing out in it’s rocky neighborhood. Many scientists believe that Ceres could still have an ocean of liquid water under its surface, some suggesting that it could be capable of supporting life for microbes.
Dawn doesn’t have the equipment to search for signs of life, but it could find evidence of underground water. The spacecraft will try to figure out the source of the bright spots on Ceres’ surface, which baffle astronomers.
Dawn will also map the dwarf planet’s surface and determine what Ceres is made of. All the measurements will begin on April 23, after six weeks of spiraling down to a specific orbit.
The mission is coordinated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, and has a few international partners, like the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the German Aerospace Center and the Italian Space Agency.
Ceres and Pluto are both dwarf planets, but Pluto has formed differently and it’s twice as wide. Also, Pluto is 14 times farther from the Sun than the asteroid belt.
Another NASA probe, the New Horizons, will observe for the first time the Pluto system, the first look of the distant dwarf planet and it’s five moons.
Image Source: Space