Dawn's Breakfast with Ceres
March 5, 2015: Mark your calendar. On Friday, March 6th, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will enter orbit around Ceres, becoming the first spacecraft from Earth to visit a dwarf planet.
"Dawn is about to make history," said Robert Mase, project manager for the Dawn mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "Our team is ready and eager to find out what Ceres has in store for us."
Ceres is located in the asteroid belt, but it is not like other asteroids. With an equatorial diameter of about 605 miles, Ceres has a surface area 38 percent of that of the continental United States, or four times the area of Texas. Its size, nearly spherical shape and other factors have led astronomers to classify it as a dwarf planet.
Dawn has already taken some remarkable images of Ceres as it approaches its target. Recent images show numerous craters and unusual bright spots that scientists believe tell how Ceres 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.
“Studying Ceres allows us to do historical research in space, opening a window into the earliest chapter in the history of our solar system,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Data returned from Dawn could contribute significant breakthroughs in our understanding of how the solar system formed.”
Dawn began its final approach phase toward Ceres in December. The spacecraft has taken many 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, and they will continue to improve in quality as the spacecraft approaches.
Ceres is named for the Roman goddess of agriculture and harvests. Craters on Ceres will similarly be named for gods and goddesses of agriculture and vegetation from world mythology. Other features will be named for agricultural festivals.
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. This two-stop tour of our solar system is made possible by Dawn’s ion propulsion system, its three ion engines being much more efficient than chemical propulsion.
"Both Vesta and Ceres were on their way to becoming planets, but their development was interrupted by the gravity of Jupiter,” said Carol Raymond, deputy project scientist at JPL. “These two bodies are like fossils from the dawn of the solar system, and they shed light on its origins."
"By studying Vesta and Ceres, we will gain a better understanding of the formation of our solar system, especially the terrestrial planets and most importantly the Earth," said Raymond. "These bodies are samples of the building blocks that have formed Venus, Earth and Mars. Vesta-like bodies are believed to have contributed heavily to the core of our planet, and Ceres-like bodies may have provided our water."
For more information about Dawn's upcoming encounter with Ceres, see the video Destination Ceres: Breakfast at Dawn