US space agency NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is due to make history as it enters the orbit of Ceres, one of the solar system’s most mysterious dwarf planets.
It has been a number of years in the making, but in January, the first images of Ceres began returning to Earth showing what amounted to a fuzzy ball in space. Dawn is now sending back the clearest images yet prior to its entry into Ceres’ orbit on Friday.
The new images, which have been collated into an animated gif, show the surface of the planet littered with craters that occurred over millions of years, and as the Dawn spacecraft spirals into closer and closer orbit around the dwarf planet, researchers will be looking for signs that these strange features are changing, which would suggest current geological activity.
The craft, which was launched almost eight years ago, recently began to investigate the rather mysterious lights that are appearing on Ceres’ surface. Until Dawn can orbit Ceres, researchers won’t be able to pinpoint their actual cause.
“The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size it is brighter than anything else on Ceres. This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us,” said Andreas Nathues last month as lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany.
This marks the second leg of Dawn’s journey. The spacecraft captured images of the asteroid known as Vesta between 2011 and 2012. Vesta orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter, similar to Ceres.
Dawn captured the latest series of images on 19 February, from a distance of nearly 46,000km (29,000 miles) where it observed Ceres for a full nine-hour rotation of the dwarf planet with an image resolution of 4km (2.5 miles) per pixel.
Gif of Ceres’ surface. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA