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NASA’s Dawn to slip into Ceres’ orbit on March 6

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NASA’s Dawn is just about to slip in Ceres’ orbit making it the first ever spacecraft to make it to the most massive body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Through this mission, NASA intends to possibly unravel the mysteries behind the origins of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago. Ceres has been an intriguing body ever since photographs of the dwarf-planet were first taken and with Dawn sending clearer pictures every few days since January, scientists are intrigued by the appearance of two bright spots on Ceres.

“What are they? At this point, the clearest answer is that the answer is unknown,” wrote mission director Marc Rayman of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on his blog.

The dwarf planet, which has an average diameter of 590 miles (950 kilometres), makes a full rotation every nine hours, and NASA is hoping for a wealth of data once the spacecraft’s orbit begins.

“Dawn is about to make history,” said Robert Mase, project manager for the Dawn mission at Nasa JPL in Pasadena, California. “Our team is ready and eager to find out what Ceres has in store for us.”

Experts will be looking for signs of geologic activity, via changes in these bright spots, or other features on Ceres’ surface over time.

The latest images came from Dawn when it was 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometres) away on February 25. The celestial body was first spotted by Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801.

Initially Ceres was classified as a planet. However, it was called an asteroid later on. This categorisation didn’t last long either as scientists proposed a dwarf-planet status for Ceres owing to its planet-like qualities. In 2006, Ceres was designated a dwarf planet along with Pluto and Eris.

Dawn spacecraft

Dawn, laced with three ion propulsion engines, was launched in September 2007. First it explored the giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, then made its way toward Ceres.

“This two-stop tour of our solar system is made possible by Dawn’s ion propulsion system, its three ion engines being much more efficient than chemical propulsion,” NASA said.

The space craft packs three scientific instruments to gather as much data as possible about the dwarf-planet. These instruments are the Framing Camera, the Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector and the Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer.

Ceres, Vesta & formation of Solar System

Carol Raymond, deputy project scientist at JPL, says that Vesta and Ceres were well on their way to become planets, but gravitational forces from Jupiter interrupted their development.

“These two bodies are like fossils from the dawn of the solar system, and they shed light on its origins”, said Raymond.

Jim Green, director of Nasa’s Planetary Science Division, said he hopes Dawn will “contribute significant breakthroughs in our understanding of how the solar system formed.”

NASA has partnered with the German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute on the mission.

Next year, the US space agency plans to launch its Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft, to “study a large asteroid in unprecedented detail and return samples to Earth,” NASA said.