NASA has stated that its Dawn spacecraft has started orbiting Ceres, which is the largest-known body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
NASA added that the encounter occurred when Dawn was pointed away from Earth so it took some time before flight controllers could confirm the craft was healthy. Unlike other orbit captures, which require thruster firings to slow down, Dawn gradually slipped into place.
Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said, “Usually, there’s a big, bone-rattling, whiplash-producing maneuver, but Dawn flies most of the time on this pillar of blue-green xenon ions, just like a spacecraft from science fiction. It’s a beautiful celestial pas de deux, these two dancers together. I think it’s really a remarkable scene to imagine. It’s so different from what we’re accustomed to from five decades of previous space exploration.”
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 950 km in diameter, and contains approximately one third of the mass of the asteroid belt. It is the second and final stop for Dawn, which previously visited the asteroid Vesta.
Recent images of Ceres have shown numerous craters, as well as the unusual bright spots that astronomers believe tell how Ceres first formed and whether its surface is changing. With the help of the Dawn spacecraft, astronomers will be looking for signs that these strange features are changing, which would suggest current geological activity. Dawn will approach as close as 235 miles above Ceres’ surface, or the distance of the international space station above Earth.
Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science, NASA, said, “Studying Ceres allows us to do historical research in space, opening a window into the earliest chapter in the history of our solar system. Data returned from Dawn spacecraft could contribute significant breakthroughs in our understanding of how the solar system formed.”