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Ceres bound Dawn packs three major scientific instruments

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NASA’s Dawn has started sending out images of Ceres as it approaches the dwarf-planet for a 16 month-long study and from the looks of it the largest body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter might hold some surprises.

NASA has fitted Dawn with three major scientific instruments to gather as much data as possible about the dwarf-planet and these include the Framing Camera, the Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector and the Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer. NASA has also said that using the equipment onboard the spacecraft and ground based systems, it will be carrying out experiment to measure gravity on Ceres.

First up, the Framing Camera will be capturing detailed optical images of Ceres. These images will be used not only for scientific purpose but will aid in navigation of the craft as well. To ensure redundancy, NASA has fitted Dawn with two identical and physically separate cameras each with its own optics, electronics and structure.

Each of these Framing Camera is equipped with an f/7.9 refractive optical system with a focal length of 150mm and can use 7 color filters to help study minerals on Ceres’ surface. Designed by The Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany, the camera can register near-infrared energy on top of the visible light humans see. The Max Planck Institute worked in collaboration with Institute for Planetary Research of the German Aerospace Center and the Institute for Computer and Communication Network Engineering of the Technical University of Braunschweig.

The Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector will measure elemental composition of Ceres. Developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, N.M., this particular scientific instrument uses 21 sensors with a very wide field of view to measure the energy from gamma rays and neutrons that either bounce off or are emitted by a celestial body.

Many scientists believe that Ceres may have water beneath its thick icy sheets and if that’s the case, the signature of the water may be contained in this instrument’s data.

Finally, the Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer will be used to carry out surface mineralogy of Ceres. The spectrometer is a modification of the instrument already used on both the European Space Agency’s Rosetta and Venus Express missions.

“Each picture the instrument takes records the light intensity at more than 400 wavelength ranges in every pixel”, notes NASA. “When scientists compare its observations with laboratory measurements of minerals, they can determine what minerals are on the surface of Ceres”. The Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer is provided by the Italian Space Agency, and was designed and built at Galileo Avionica, in collaboration with Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics.