Since its launch in 2007, the Dawn spacecraft has been en route to two celestial bodies as part of The Dawn Mission. In 2011, it successfully arrived at its first destination: asteroid Vesta. Years after this initial accomplishment, the spacecraft now hovers only 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers) from the dwarf planet, Ceres.
This past weekend, on January 13, 2015, Dawn observed Ceres for an hour, producing several photographs using two framing cameras (FC1 and FC2) carried in its payload. About half of the dwarf planet’s surface was captured at a resolution of 27 pixels with a possible resolution of 66 m/pixel. The images will now help to determine the volume, spin state, shape, topography, interior structure, surfaces properties, color, mineralogy, evolution and environment of Ceres and Vesta.
According to the craft’s objective, scientists hope that studying these two celestial bodies will reveal more about the beginning or the “dawn” of the universe, hence the spacecraft’s name. Some believe protoplanets, like Ceres and Vesta, hold the key to understanding planet formation. Over the course of time in colliding with one another, these baby planets supposedly gradually form dominant planets.
Vesta and Ceres were specifically chosen not only because they are both protoplanets, but also they have different natures from one another. The chance that a mission would be able to visit both bodies in one window was very slim. According to Chris Russel, the Dawn Mission’s Principal Investigator, this depended on “Vesta and Ceres being both in the right part of the sky (nearly aligned with the Sun). This in turn happens every 17 years, so we are very fortunate to be able to do this dual asteroid mission right now.”
As stated by the craft’s mission, Dawn’s continued study of Ceres and observations of Vesta will contribute to the “exploration of the inner solar system, addresses NASA’s goal of understanding the origin and evolution of the solar system and complements ongoing investigations of Mercury, Earth and Mars.”