NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Begins Its Final Approach to the Dwarf Planet Ceres

Friday, 01 June 2018 - 7:22PM
Space
Solar System
NASA
Friday, 01 June 2018 - 7:22PM
NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Begins Its Final Approach to the Dwarf Planet Ceres
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The Dawn spacecraft first made a pass around the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015, and its findings were fascinating enough that NASA decided to keep their probe there permanently.

Last year, after already extending Dawn's mission once, NASA announced that Dawn would be moving closer to the dwarf planet than ever before, as it moves into a final orbit to keep studying the odd bright spots and other quirks on the surface. Starting in early June 2018, Dawn should finally be entering this new and permanent orbit. 

Once Dawn's new orbit is in place, it will be hovering just 30 miles (50 kilometers) over the surface of Ceres - which is 10 times closer than it's ever been - and it will remain there until it eventually runs out of fuel. After that, its final resting place will be in Ceres' orbit, since there's no way to recover a probe like that (and it least they're not intentionally crashing it, like when the Cassini was crashed into Saturn at the end of mission). 



At this point, what exactly will Dawn be doing with the only dwarf planet in the asteroid belt (every other known dwarf planet, like Pluto, sits out beyond Neptune)? Beyond taking some great photos, it'll also be collecting gamma ray and neutron spectra to help astronomers figure out what exactly the planet is made out of.
 
Ceres also contains some unusual bright spots which are thought to be highly reflective patches of ice, and the engineers who work with the spacecraft are likely excited to get an even better look at those. Carol Raymond, the principal investigator of the Dawn spacecraft team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the following in an official statement from the space agency: 

Opening quote
"The team is eagerly awaiting the detailed composition and high-resolution imaging from the new, up-close examination. These new high-resolution data allow us to test theories formulated from the previous data sets and discover new features of this fascinating dwarf planet."
Closing quote


Maneuvering Dawn into this terminal orbit was no easy task. With just its ion engine to move it around, it took months of testing out different paths before they settled on a itinerary that would give Dawn maximum opportunities to look at scientific data during this last voyage.

As the closest dwarf planet, Ceres presents a lot of opportunities to help us better understand our solar system. Other probes like New Horizons have managed to study a farther dwarf planet when it flew by Pluto, but it took ages to get there. 

Granted, it's no short trip to Ceres either, as Dawn launched in 2007 and only arrived in 2015 (with a year-long detour at the asteroid Vesta). So it's good that we don't have to worry about a return trip. 


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