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NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Becomes First to Orbit a Dwarf Planet


Image credit: Ceres, taken by the Dawn spacecraft from a distance of 30,000 miles. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

When Spacecraft Dawn of NASA reached Ceres at 4:39 a.m. PST Friday morning, it was the first time for a man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet in human history.

As confirmed by NASA, the purpose of the Dawn’s launching   is focused on studying the asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres and these celestial bodies are thought to have accreted in the early times of the solar system. Such mission would help describe the early solar system as well as the processes which had played a decisive role in its formation.

In September 2007, Dawn took off from Cape Canaveral and its ultimate destination would be the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. Vesta was the first target for Dawn in the asteroid belt. Upon its arrival at Vesta in 2011, Dawn had spent fourteen months there to study the protoplanet. After that, Dawn continued its journey to Ceres, its second and final destination. In history, there was no spacecraft that had orbited two separate targets before.

Talking of this mission of Spacecraft Dawn, Marc Rayman, chief engineer of Dawn, who was working for Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, since its discovery in 1801, Ceres had been known as a planet, an asteroid and a dwarf planet respectively. At present, after a journey of 4.9 billion kilometers and a period of 7.5 years, Dawn finally reached Ceres.


ceres trajectory

Image: Path taken by Dawn from launch, to Vesta, to Ceres. Image credit: NASA

Owing to the position where the spacecraft is now, images from Dawn would be captured in full light after mid-April. As soon as it faces the side illuminated by the sun, Dawn will start to send back high-resolution images.

The initial scientific mission of Spacecraft Dawn will go on until July of 2015. During this period of time, Dawn will be engaged in analysis of Ceres by the means of a camera reflecting the images in visible wavelengths, which is called mapping with spectrometry in visible and infrared in addition to gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.

By doing this, scientists would be capable of making the comparison between data collected from Dawn and those taken from Vesta in terms of their respective internal structures, gravitational fields, as well as other characters. With further understanding of the biggest objects in our asteroid belt, it would enable scientists to learn more about how the planets in our solar system have been formed.

As Chris Russell, the principal investigator from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) said, their team was extremely excited, because they would do more in the coming year and a half. And they would go further towards their science objectives with a much deliberate plan and more sufficient reserves on station.