TORONTO – NASA’S Dawn spacecraft is on its final approach to a world that humans have never seen in detail. On Monday, NASA released a series of images as a taste of things to come.
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Dawn’s mission is to explore the asteroid belt, a region of space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter that is occupied by tens of thousands of rocky bits left over from the formation of our solar system. From 2011 to 2012, Dawn orbited Vesta, the second-largest body in the asteroid belt, snapping more than 30,000 photos. Now, it is on its way to Ceres, the most massive body in that region of space.
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Though Ceres is the biggest object in the asteroid belt — it comprises about 25 per cent of the entire asteroid belt — it’s small, measuring just 950 km across.
First discovered in 1801, Ceres was initially classified as a planet. It was reclassified as an asteroid, and then, in 2006, reclassified again as a dwarf planet along with Pluto, once considered our solar system’s ninth planet.
“We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Now, Dawn is ready to change that.”
This image, taken on Jan. 13, 2015, shows Ceres as seen from the Dawn spacecraft as it approaches the dwarf planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This image, taken on Jan. 13, 2015, shows Ceres as seen from the Dawn spacecraft as it approaches the dwarf planet.
Dawn is not alone in its exploration of dwarf planets. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is on approach to Pluto, making its closest flyby of the icy world in July.
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The photos released this week were taken at a distance of 383,000 km and have already revealed some details about the small, rocky body.
“Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.
Though we have a good understanding about our solar system, there are still many unexplored regions, such as the asteroid belt and the outer solar system near Pluto and beyond. Astronomers seek to learn more about the formation of our Earth and our small region in space by studying these regions that contain fragments left over from the birth of our solar system.
Dawn will arrive at Ceres next month.