Two hundred and fourteen years ago, on Jan. 1 1801, the discovery of a faint celestial body set the stage for one of the biggest arguments in astronomy — planetary classification. Ceres, an asteroid the size of Texas, was known as the solar system’s largest rock for nearly two centuries. Until 2006, when a debate on the planetary status of Pluto called for a reclassification of Ceres to dwarf planet status.
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NASA launched Dawn shortly after in 2007, with a goal of further investigating this enigmatic world. Now, it is in the approach phase of its journey to the dwarf planet Ceres. When Dawn enters orbit around Ceres in March 2015, it will be the first spacecraft—from Earth, anyway—to visit the 590-mile -wide (950-kilometer-wide) chunk of rock and ice.
“Ceres is almost a complete mystery to us,” Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell, of UCLA, said in a statement. “Ceres, unlike Vesta, has no meteorites linked to it to help reveal its secrets. All we can predict with confidence is that we will be surprised.”
While Ceres and Vesta reside in the same general neighborhood, they appear to be quite different from each other. For example, the 325-mile-wide (525 km) Vesta is thought to be a dry body, while Ceres possesses an icy mantle and might even harbor a subsurface ocean of liquid water. (Indeed, Ceres might be capable of supporting life as we know it, some researchers say.)
Over the next couple of months, Dawn will offer continually improving views of Ceres prior to its arrival. By the end of January, Dawn will provide the best images and data ever taken of the dwarf planet. And its final arrival in March will herald new discoveries and new information about this mysterious body located in the asteroid belt.
Be sure to stay tuned to CosmosUp for continuing developments as this mission progresses. Want to learn more about ion propulsion? Make sure to check out this video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.
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