Ceres, a giant asteroid floating through our solar system, also happens to be the only dwarf planet in our inner solar system. This month, NASA will watch anxiously as its Dawn spacecraft will get its closest look ever at Ceres. Dawn will enter an orbit just 22 miles above the surface of the dwarf planet.
The proximity of the Dawn craft to Ceres will allow researchers to get an up-close look at the dwarf planet like never before. High-resolution imaging will allow the scientists to test theories based on previous data gathered from other fly-bys in the past.
Researchers are especially excited to study one particular area of Ceres. Occator Crater is the location of several large salt deposits which are highly reflective when the sun shines on them. For years, researchers have been highly intrigued with these bright, white spots on the surface of Ceres. Now, they’ll get a closer look than ever before at the Occator Crater, giving them more insight to the dwarf planets geological makeup.
Not only does this month’s passing of Ceres mark the Dawn spacecraft’s lowest orbit to the dwarf planet, it’s actually the lowest orbit to any item in space since the craft launched from Earth over a decade ago.
After its launch in 2007, Dawn orbited the asteroid Vesta, the second largest asteroid behind Ceres. Since 2015, Dawn has been orbiting the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn has been orbiting Ceres since 2016, but at a much greater distance than it will achieve this month. Up until now, the spacecraft has orbited between 2,800 and 24,000 miles from the surface. Scientists conducted more than 45,000 “test runs” before deciding on an orbit that would get Dawn as close to the dwarf planet as possible and still provide adequate opportunities for scientific study. When they made their decision, Dawn started its downward orbit on April 16th of this year.
NASA spent $466 million on the Dawn project, and the craft will finish its duty in orbit around Ceres.