On Thursday, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft reached its first orbit around the asteroid Ceres, which is 950km-wide.
Starting on April 23rd, the Dawn spacecraft will spend about three weeks in a near-circular orbit around Ceres. It will take observations from 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) above the surface. On May 9th, the spacecraft will begin to move to lower orbits to improve its view and provide higher-resolution observations.
The two brightest spots on dwarf planet Ceres have fascinated scientists for months. Recently, the Dawn spacecraft sent the latest photos it took from a vantage point 22,000 kilometers above Ceres’ north-pole. These images show Ceres’ brightest spot and its companion clearly standing out against their darker surroundings, but their composition and sources are still unknown.
In addition, scientists see other interesting features, including heavy cratering. As Dawn gets closer to Ceres, surface features will continue to emerge at increasingly better resolutions.
The Dawn spacecraft has finished delivering the images that have helped mission planners maneuver the spacecraft to its first science orbit and prepare for subsequent observations. All of the approach operations have been executed flawlessly and kept Dawn on course and on schedule.
“The approach imaging campaign has completed successfully by giving us a preliminary, tantalizing view of the world Dawn is about to start exploring in detail. It has allowed us to start asking some new and intriguing questions,” stated Marc Rayman, Dawn’s mission director and chief engineer.
The Dawn became the first spacecraft on March 6th to orbit a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two extraterrestrial targets.
Scientists plan to compare Ceres to giant asteroid Vesta, which Dawn studied from 2011 to 2012, in order to gain insights about the formation of our solar system. Both Vesta and Ceres, located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, were on their way to becoming planets before their development was interrupted.
UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. The spacecraft is designed and built by Orbital ATK. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency, and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.
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