NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is closing in on the dwarf planet Ceres and has captured the first in a series of images that will be taken as it navigates towards it.
We can expect better and better images over the coming weeks until Dawn is captured into orbit around Ceres on 6 March.
The tiny object, with an average diameter of just 950 kilometres, is something of a mystery.
“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, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The best images of Ceres so far were taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004 (below).
The most recent images from Dawn, taken on 13 January, are at about 80% of Hubble resolution. But Dawn’s images will surpass Hubble’s resolution at the next imaging opportunity, which will be at the end of the month.
“Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.
Ceres is the largest body in the main asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter. It is thought to contain a large amount of ice and some scientists think it’s possible that the surface conceals an ocean.
NASA has more information about Dawn at http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov.