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NASA’s Dawn spacecraft begins orbit of dwarf planet Ceres

An artist's impression of DAWN heading towards dwarf-planet Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An artist's impression of DAWN heading towards dwarf-planet Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
An artist’s impression of DAWN heading towards dwarf-planet Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It has been nothing short of an an extraordinary 12 months for NASA’s space exploration programs. The MAVEN spacecraft started orbiting Mars, Orion had its first successful launch, astronauts began using 3D printing in space and Rosetta landed Philae on a comet. Adding to the tally of groundbreaking achievements in space pioneering, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has managed two firsts in one.

The Dawn spacecraft has this week become not only the first craft to orbit two bodies in the solar system in a single journey, but the first to enter the orbit of a dwarf planet, after moving on from its orbit of the Vesta asteroid and inserting successfully into orbit around Ceres.

Ceres is the largest body in the asteroid belt that exists between Mars and Jupiter, yet it remains a mystery in many respects. For a while, we’ve known it to be icy, more spherical than an asteroid and not much more. It was once considered a planet, from its discovery in 1801 until it was downgraded to an “asteroid” in the 1860s for its failure to clear its orbit (being part of the asteroid belt makes that fairly obvious). More recently, it was upgraded to the “dwarf planet” label that is currently shared with Pluto and a handful of other bodies in our solar system.

This mission is significant for several reasons. One is because Ceres is likely to contain water, probably in the form of sub-surface ice reserves and possibly even in liquid form, covered by a layer of surface ice. Ceres is also believed to harbour volcanic activity. Volcanic heat plus water can provide conditions consistent with supporting life in some form.

Technologically, any mission that involves more than one orbital mission is exceptional, and Dawn’s ion thruster system has been a breakthrough in efficient propulsion.

Whatever is discovered through the activity of this orbital probe is going to be exciting, and the mission to get there has already involved major milestones in manufacturing, propulsion and planning. NASA’s JPL has performed an amazing feat and we can’t wait to see what the next few months reveal about this mysterious nearby dwarf planet.

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