Jet Propulsion Laboratory – The Dawn spacecraft, which is orbiting the dwarf planet, Ceres, has been able to capture some images of its sunlit north pole. On April 10, the spacecraft was able to move from the dark side of the dwarf planet towards the sunlit side and capture high resolution pictures of the pole, from a distance of 21,000 miles.
Dawn has been orbiting the icy body since March 6, when it established orbit and became the first spacecraft to orbit the planet. As Dawn moves closer towards the planet, additional better quality pictures will soon be released. Currently, the spacecraft is using its ion propulsion system to maneuver itself towards a series of lower orbits, with the next orbit due to be established on April 23.
It is expected that it will remain in this orbit, at just 8,400 miles, until May 9, after which it will proceed towards lower orbits.
However, Ceres is not the first icy body the spacecraft has visited. It had previously spent 14 months, between 2011 and 2012, circling the asteroid Vesta. This has given Dawn the honor of becoming the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies. Ceres was chosen for study by the spacecraft due to a number of reasons.
The object is the largest in the asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter, but it still has just 27% of the diameter of the Earth’s moon. Surprisingly, it also holds one-third of all matter present in the entire belt.
The images have revealed a grainy surface, much like that of our own moon. However, most scientists are still trying to sort out the mystery of the two bright spots on the dwarf planet’s surface. The principal investigator of Dawn, Chris Russell, stated that there is a lot to be done in the next one and a half year and NASA has a plan to achieve its science objectives through this station. The mission had cost $446 million and is to stay operational until 2016.