NASA’s Dawn commences Ceres approach; will be in its orbit in March 2015

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NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which was launched back in 2007, has entered the approach phase towards the ice and rock laden dwarf planet Ceres. The spacecraft will take over 2 months to enter Ceres Orbit, which is expected to happen in March 2015.

The importance of this event is that Dawn will be the first spacecraft to ever orbit two solar system targets and the the first to visit the 590-mile -wide Ceres. Dawn previously explored the protoplanet Vesta for 14 months, from 2011 to 2012, capturing detailed images and data about that body.

Dawn will now be able to communicate reliably with Earth after it emerged from solar conjunction – a phase wherein a spacecraft is on the opposite side of the Sun wherein the communications with the craft are limited. Mission controllers at NASA have programmed the manoeuvres necessary for the next stage of the rendezvous, which they label for the Ceres approach phase.

“Ceres is almost a complete mystery to us,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission. “Ceres, unlike Vesta, has no meteorites linked to it to help reveal its secrets. All we can predict with confidence is that we will be surprised.”

Dawn is currently 640,000 kilometres from Ceres, approaching it at around 725 kilometres per hour. The spacecraft has completed five years of accumulated thrust time, far more than any other spacecraft. By the end of January, the spacecraft’s images and other data would be the best ever taken of the dwarf planet.