Jan 20, 2015 09:09 PM EST
NASA's Dawn spacecraft has begun approaching the dwarf planet Ceres, and with a new vantage point it has snapped some of its first images of the planet showing possible craters on the surface.
"We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that," Dawn's chief engineer and mission director, Marc Rayman says.
The Dawn spacecraft is set to study the dwarf planet for the next sixteen months and as it approaches Ceres it will begin to send increasingly better and better images as it gets closer. This marks the first time a spacecraft has ever visited a dwarf planet.
"Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters," lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Andreas Nathues says..
The images were taken on January 13 when Dawn was approximately 238,000 miles away from Ceres. According to NASA, these images are about 80 percent the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. The next set of images from the spacecraft will be in around the end of this month and will be the clearest yet, NASA says.
Ceres lies between Mars and Jupiter and is the largest body in the main asteroid belt, with a diameter of 590 miles. Scientists believe that there are large amounts of ice located on Ceres and there might even be an ocean currently being concealed by the surface. Scientists estimate that if Ceres were composed of 25 percent water, it may have more water than all the fresh water on Earth.
"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. "We look forward to the surprises this mysterious world may bring."
Dawn was originally launched in 2007 with a mission of studying the protoplanet Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. It first arrived at Vesta, the second largest body in the asteroid belt, in July 2011 and has already successfully completed a 14 month study of the protoplanet, which included more than 30,000 images of Vesta. Should the mission be a success, Dawn will be the first spacecraft to successfully orbit and study two separate extraterrestrial bodies.
The spacecraft will arrive at Ceres on March 6, when it will be captured into orbit to begin its study of the dwarf planet.
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