Our solar system’s least known dwarf planet, Ceres, has been photographed by the NASA Dawn spacecraft for the first time as part of an extensive mission to explore its mysteries.
Dawn launched in 2007 to help scientists study not only Ceres, the dwarf planet that exists in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but also many of the other large objects that exist within the belt.
The craft is expected to spend the next several weeks approaching Ceres, with images of its rocky and icy surface becoming increasingly clearer. Dawn is expected to reach the planet’s orbit on 6 March.
Until these new images, the best US space agency NASA or any astronomer have been able to view were captured by the Hubble Space Telescope more than a decade ago and ironically offer more image quality than the much-closer Dawn images captured this week at its current distance.
A gif image of what Dawn captured during an hour-long period at a distance of 383,000 km from Ceres’ surface. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Ceres could be harbouring an ocean
Ceres, which has an average diameter of 950 km, is believed to contain a significant quantity of ice on its surface, according to NASA. Some scientists claim it could even contain an ocean beneath its frozen exterior.
With the help of its highly advanced ion propulsion engines, Dawn will become the only craft to have ever conducted research in the orbit of two deep-space objects, the first being the second largest object in the asteroid belt, Vesta.
Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director at NASA, said, “We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that.”