Science

NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Nears Dwarf Planet Ceres

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is all set to make history. The science satellite will enter the orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres on Friday, March 6. Dawn has sent some fresh images as it inches closer to Ceres. NASA scientists said Monday that it will be the first mission to successfully visit a dwarf planet.

NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Nears Dwarf Planet Ceres

NASA scientists eager to find out more about Ceres

Robert Mase, project manager for the Dawn mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said his team was eager and ready to find out what the dwarf planet has in store. Latest images show many bright spots and unusual craters that will help scientists find out how Ceres was formed and whether its surface is changing. Ceres, which sits in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, was the first object discovered in the asteroid belt of our solar system.

Ceres was discovered by Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. This round dwarf planet has a diameter of 600 miles, and is the largest body in the asteroid belt. Researchers suspect it may have had an underground ocean in its early history. Dwarf planets are believed to be building blocks left over from the formation of planets about 4.6 billion years ago.

Dawn cost NASA $473 million

Dawn is expected to enter the orbit around Ceres at 7:20 a.m. (ET) on March 6. However, telescopes on the Earth won’t be in a position to pick up its signals until later in the day, NASA said at a news conference. Dawn captured latest images of the dwarf planet from about 25,000 miles away. Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said data from Dawn could “contribute significant breakthroughs” in scientists’ understanding of the solar system formation.

Dawn, which cost NASA $473 million, was launched in September 2007. It explored the asteroid Vesta in 2011 and 2012 for 14 months before firing its engine towards Ceres. Another NASA probe, New Horizons, will fly by Pluto in July.