NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has captured the brightest pictures of dwarf planet Ceres, which reveals its sunlit North Pole and diverse surface.
Prior to taking this image, the Dawn spacecraft had spent more than a month in orbit on the dark side of the dwarf planet. Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, marking the first time a spacecraft has orbited the dwarf planet. On April 10th, the spacecraft took the images of the dwarf planet’s sunlit North Pole from a distance of 21,000 miles. These images represent the highest-resolution views of Ceres to date.
Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It is composed of rock and ice, is 590 miles in diameter, and comprises approximately one third of the mass of the asteroid belt. It is the only dwarf planet in the inner Solar System and the only object in the asteroid belt known to be unambiguously rounded by its own gravity. It was discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi, on 1 January 1801.
NASA has stated that the spacecraft (which is the first to orbit two bodies, the first being the asteroid Vesta) will enter Ceres’ orbit at 8,400 miles above the surface on 23 April. It will then start to collect the dwarf planet’s data.
Dawn was launched by NASA in September 2007 with the mission of studying two of the three known protoplanets of the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres. It is first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies, the first spacecraft to visit either Vesta or Ceres, and also the first to visit a dwarf planet, arriving at Ceres a few months before New Horizons was scheduled to fly by Pluto. It entered Vesta’s orbit on July 16, 2011, and completed a 14-month survey mission before leaving for Ceres in late 2012. It will continue to study Ceres until June 2016.