Apr 21, 2015 07:04 PM EDT
The two bright spots on Ceres that have fascinated scientists and amateur astronomers around the world for months now are back in view in the latest images of the dwarf planet. The images show the brightest spot and its companion clearly standing out against the darker surroundings, but scientists still have no idea what they are made of and what the source of the spots could be.
Scientists have also been able to catch a first look at many other interesting features, including heavy cratering. As Dawn gets closer and closer to Ceres, the images will continue to stream in at even better resolutions and could reveal even more interesting features that could warrant investigation.
Dawn has finished delivering the images mission planners need to maneuver the spacecraft into its first science orbit and prepare it for observations. Thus far, all of the approach operations have executed flawlessly and Dawn is on course and schedule.
Beginning on April 23, Dawn will spend about three weeks in a near-circular orbit around the dwarf planet at 13,500 kilometers (8,400 miles) above the surface. On May 9, Dawn will begin to navigate its way into even lower orbits to improve the view and snap even higher resolutions images.
"The approach imaging campaign has completed successfully by giving us a preliminary, tantalizing view of the world Dawn is about to start exploring in detail. It has allowed us to start asking some new and intriguing questions," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's mission director and chief engineer, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
Dawn became the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet and the first to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies when it entered orbit of Ceres on March 6. Dawn first visited the giant asteroid Vesta remaining there from 2011 to 2012. Scientists plan to compare Ceres to the giant asteroid Vesta in an effort to gain insights about the formation of our solar system.
Both Vesta and Ceres are located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and were, at one point, well on their way to becoming full fledged planets when their development was interrupted. Dawn's mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.
Dawn was originally launched in September 2007 and first arrived at Vesta on July 16, 2011.
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