NASA’s Dawn spacecraft reached Ceres on March 6th. It notched the honor of the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet. Dawn is also the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial targets.
Since March 6th, Dawn has been in orbit on the dark side of dwarf planet. On April 10th, the spacecraft took several incredible images of Ceres’ sun-lit north pole. At the time, Dawn was 21,000 miles away from Ceres. The images (compiled into a GIF) below are the sharpest ever captured.
Ceres surface is riddled with craters. One feature is missing from the images above. Those bright white spots that captured everyone’s attention earlier this year.
Dawn should provide a better look at Ceres’ white spots over the next few weeks
An ion propulsion system continues to propel Dawn ever closer to Ceres. By April 23rd, it will reach its first science orbit at a distance of 8,400 miles. On May 9th, Dawn will edge even closer to the dwarf planet.
Previously, I highlighted how close Dawn will get to Ceres. In June, Dawn will close within 2,730 miles of Ceres. By August, it will be 910 miles above the dwarf planet’s surface. In December, it gets even closer – just 230 miles from Ceres.
Here’s an image showing the different ‘science’ orbits Dawn is expected to conduct around Ceres.
NASA and JPL have published an extensive PDF highlighting everything you could ever want to know about Dawn’s mission to Ceres.
The images above are just the beginning of what Dawn will show and tell us about the dwarf planet Ceres.
Does Ceres have an ocean under its surface layer of ice? What exactly are those bright white spots on its surface? These are the questions Dawn will be tackling in the coming weeks.
Speaking of the bright white spots – they are most likely ice. A NASA spokesperson said in March that cryovolcanism is unlikely. Dawn will give us a more concrete answer soon.
Image credits: NASA