NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is closing in on its target dwarf planet Ceres. The probe has beamed back a series of photos of the gigantic cosmic mass. The space agency has released new images that show tantalizing details of Ceres. With an average diameter of 590 miles, Ceres is the largest asteroid between Mars and Jupiter.
NASA probe to enter Ceres’ orbit on March 6
The images released by NASA are relatively grainy compared to those captured by Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004. Taken on January 13, 2015, the photos from Dawn are at 80% of Hubble resolution. But these images will help scientists guide Dawn closer to the dwarf planet. NASA says that Dawn’s image quality will improve significantly and surpass the resolution of Hubble at the next imaging opportunity as the spacecraft moves closer to Ceres.
According to NASA, the new images were taken by Dawn from a distance of 238,000 miles. These photos show the dwarf planet at 27 pixels across, three times better than images captured in early December. Over the next several weeks, the probe will send back increasingly better and better photos of Ceres. The spacecraft will finally enter the orbit around the dwarf planet on March 6, NASA said.
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Signs of water on Ceres?
It will be the first time the probe has visited a dwarf planet. Dawn will continue to study Ceres for 16 months as scientists analyze data about the dwarf planet. Dawn’s mission director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Marc Rayman, said that even though we know a lot about our solar system, we have little knowledge of the dwarf planet Ceres.
Rayman said Ceres has 38% of the area of the continental United States. The dwarf planet is widely believed to be a giant world of rock and ice. Ceres possibly contains an ocean. Last year, the Herschel Space Observatory spotted water vapor rising off two spots on Ceres. Rayman said Ceres may have subsurface ponds or lakes. Current images already point to what appear to be craters.