NASA's Dawn spacecraft has returned new images captured on approach to its historic orbit insertion at the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn will be the first mission to successfully visit a dwarf planet when it enters orbit around Ceres on Friday.
Recent images show numerous craters and unusual bright spots that scientists believe tell how Ceres, the first object discovered in our solar system's asteroid belt, formed and whether its surface is changing. As the spacecraft spirals into closer and closer orbits around the dwarf planet, researchers will be looking for signs that these strange features are changing, which would suggest current geological activity.
"Data returned from Dawn could contribute significant breakthroughs in our understanding of how the solar system formed,” said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Dawn began its final approach phase toward Ceres in December. The spacecraft has taken several optical navigation images and made two rotation characterizations, allowing Ceres to be observed through its full nine-hour rotation. Since Jan. 25, Dawn has been delivering the highest-resolution images of Ceres ever captured.
Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi spotted Ceres in 1801. As more such objects were found in the same region, they became known as asteroids, or minor planets. Ceres was initially classified as a planet and later called an asteroid. In recognition of its planet-like qualities, Ceres was designated a dwarf planet in 2006, along with Pluto and Eris.
Launched in September 2007, Dawn explored the giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, capturing detailed images and data about that body. Both Vesta and Ceres orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter, in the main asteroid belt.
Ceres and Vesta have several important differences. Ceres is the most massive body in the asteroid belt, with an average diameter of 590 miles (950 kilometers). Ceres' surface covers about 38 percent of the area of the continental United States. Vesta has an average diameter of 326 miles (525 kilometers), and is the second most massive body in the belt. The asteroid formed earlier than Ceres and is a very dry body. Ceres, in contrast, is estimated to be 25 percent water by mass.
Dawn's mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft.
The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.