NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is lining up its approach on the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn’s mission to Ceres has taken eight years and will culminate by entering Ceres orbit in March 2015.
Mission controllers have re-established normal communications with Dawn after it emerged from the opposite side of the sun. Programmed maneuvers have been sent to the spacecraft as it sits about 400,000 miles from Ceres.
Dawn is expected to arrive at Ceres on March 6, 2015. When it does, Dawn will become the first spacecraft to orbit two solar system targets according to NASA and JPL. Back in 2011 and 2012, Dawn orbited the protoplanet Vesta and studied it.
“Ceres is almost a complete mystery to us,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission.
“Ceres, unlike Vesta, has no meteorites linked to it to help reveal its secrets. All we can predict with confidence is that we will be surprised.”
Here’s 3 things we do know about Ceres.
Ceres is about the size of Texas
JPL describes Ceres as a ‘Texas-sized’ dwarf planet. Ceres has an average diameter of 590 miles and is the largest body in the asteroid belt.
Ceres has an icy mantle
While not a lot is known about Ceres, NASA officials do know it has a thick ice mantle. There may even be an ocean beneath this icy crust. Something Dawn will be on the lookout for when it reaches the dwarf planet on March 6, 2015.
Ceres was discovered more than 200 years ago
The year was 1801. Sicilian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi discovered what was thought to be a planet at the time. It was named Ceres after the Roman goddess of agriculture. 50 years later, dozens of smaller objects would be discovered in the asteroid belt separating Mars and Jupiter and Ceres downgraded to an asteroid.
While we won’t know everything about Ceres until March, Dawn will start giving us the best images of the dwarf planet by the end of January.
Image credit: Hubble Space Telescope
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