NASAs Dawn is just about to conclude its eight-year trip and soon will touch base with Ceres, the biggest dwarf planet in the asteroid belt.
The Dawn craft will slip into orbit Friday around Ceres, a dwarf planet the size of Texas. Unlike robotic landings or other orbit captures, the arrival won’t be a nail-biter. Still, Dawn had to travel some 3 billion miles to reach the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The spacecraft will begin its close range orbit of the planet which is approximately the size of the lone star state of the U.S., Texas. Dawn traveled approximately 3 billion miles to keep the appointment.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride. It’s been extremely thrilling,” project manager Robert Mase of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Monday.
Ceres is the second dwarf planet to have the distinction of being visited by a spacecraft after Vesta in 2014. After being put to space in 2007, Dawn made a stopover in Vesta to make some studies which later would be used to compare with Ceres before proceeding to its main objective.
As Dawn is nearing Ceres, it took images of the planet showing two mysterious bright lights emanating from the same plane, side by side with each other. The scientists, although in possession of sharp images, will just have to wait some more for the spacecraft to get as close as 235 miles hopefully to solve the mystery once and for all.
It was last year that a European research group was able to detect the presence of water plumes in the dwarf planet. The origin of the plumes were not clear. The researchers were not part of the Ceres project.
According to the deputy project scientist, Carol Raymond, the bright spots might be ice or salt, and may have link with the water plumes.
Dawn is equipped with apparatus that should be able to detect the presence of the plumes if the source is still existing.
The spacecraft cost NASA $473 million. Its mission is unique since it was intended to investigate two asteroids, the first in NASAs history. The main purpose of which is to get more understanding on how our solar system developed.
Both Vesta and Ceres are found between Jupiter and Mars together with undetermined number of asteroids of which Ceres is the biggest and Vesta the second largest.
The duo are “literally fossils that we can investigate to really understand the processes that were going on” during the formation of the solar system,” Raymond said.