As NASA's trailblazing Dawn mission approaches dwarf planet Ceres, a new series of images beamed back show tantalizing detail in the mysterious world's surface.
The robotic probe will, in March, become the first ever mission to orbit two solar system bodies. After leaving orbit around massive asteroid Vesta in 2012, Dawn has steadily made its way to its second massive target in the asteroid belt, a region sandwiched between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
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When Dawn arrives at Ceres, this will be our first ever visit to the enigmatic world that has long-fascinated astronomers and planetary scientists alike.
"We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission director, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
These new observations of Ceres are from only 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers) away, and appear to show craters and geological variations. Although it is fascinating to see the 590 mile- (950 kilometer-) wide dwarf planet through Dawn's eye, this 27-pixel-wide view is still only 80 percent the resolution of Hubble's best observations of Ceres acquired in 2003 and 2004. But this will soon change - over the coming weeks we'll see Ceres slowly snap into view, surpassing even the best resolution of any space telescope.
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"The team is very excited to examine the surface of Ceres in never-before-seen detail," said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We look forward to the surprises this mysterious world may bring."
Previous studies of Ceres have provided evidence that Ceres was a protoplanet that evolved amongst the debris of the asteroid belt. Observations in early 2014 even detected water vapor surrounding Ceres, which hints of a subsurface ocean beneath an icy crust - not too dissimilar to Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus. Of course, any detection of water on or near another planet brings speculation of life - something astrobiologists will be excited to test on the solar system's innermost dwarf planet.
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Dawn is currently slowly spiraling in toward Ceres orbit. Under ion drive propulsion, the spacecraft is taking the slow-but-steady approach to exploring the asteroid belt, a technique that couldn't be carried out by a mission sporting traditional chemical rockets. Ion drives use a tiny quantity of fuel that is ionized and propelled through an electric field. When directed through a nozzle, the escaping charged particles provide a very small, yet very steady thrust over long periods of time.
So, mark March 6 in your calendars, we are about to enter orbit around Ceres, a dwarf planet almost as mysterious as its dwarf planet cousin, Pluto, that NASA's New Horizons mission will fly past in July.