Feb 06, 2015 07:35 PM EST
Only a month before starting its orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres in our solar system's main asteroid belt, NASA's Dawn spacecraft has revealed the sharpest images of the mysterious dwarf planet to date.
The images released by NASA today were captured by Dawn Wednesday, Feb. 4 when the spacecraft was only 90,000 miles away from Ceres, which lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Though researcher Giuseppe Piazzi originally discovered the 590-mile-wide dwarf in 1801, to date astronomers know very little about the rocky world. And with Dawn NASA researchers hope to gain a new view of what may be lying on the surface below.
More than three times the size of Vesta, Ceres is though to account for nearly 30 percent of the belt's total mass. And though its surface is frigid with what appears to be ice, astronomers believe that Ceres may harbor lakes and subsurface oceans of liquid water far below.
"It's very exciting" Dawn Mission Director and Chief Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Marc Rayman says. "This is a truly unique world, something that we've never seen before."
"After looking through telescopes at Ceres for more than 200 years, I just think it's really going to be exciting to see what this exotic, alien world looks like. We're finally going to learn about this place."
On the evening of Mar. 5, Dawn will become the first ever spacecraft to orbit Ceres, and will begin its transit around the dwarf planet. Researchers from NASA say that with a camera, a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, Dawn is equipped to give us an entirely unseen view of the far off world, and may even find water deep within our solar system. If subsurface water exists, Dawn may see chemical signs of interactions between it and the surface, Rayman says. And that would be a fascinating place for further research to start.
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