(Next Media) – NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will reach dwarf planet Ceres on Friday, marking the end of its eight-year journey. The spacecraft’s mission is to study both Vesta, one of the largest asteroid in our solar system, and Ceres, an icy dwarf planet.
The Dawn spacecraft will slowly approach Ceres later this week after traveling two and a half years from Vesta. The spacecraft will travel alongside Ceres at a pace that will allow Ceres’ gravity to eventually take hold of the spacecraft and bring the spacecraft into orbit alongside it.
Ceres is a little-understood dwarf planet located in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. About 590 miles wide, the planet is believed to have a large layer of water underneath its icy mantle and above its rocky core. Research also suggests that Ceres may have a layer of heated, muddy water below its icy surface.
As the spacecraft begins to approach Ceres, NASA scientists are already surprised by what they see. Several days ago, the Dawn spacecraft’s camera captured two bright, white spots on the dwarf planet’s surface. There are several theories as to what the white spots may be. Some scientists suggest that the planet may have bumped into objects in the asteroid belt, exposing a layer of ice that reflects light. Another theory is that the white spots are caused by cryovolcanic eruptions that spew ice onto the surface. The third, but least likely, possibility that’s been mentioned is that the white spots are caused by magnesium silicates on the surface.
Discoveries made on the Dawn mission will help NASA scientists better understand the planet-formation process. If the Dawn spacecraft is able to complete this final leg of its journey, then the probe will be the first spacecraft to orbit two celestial objects beyond the moon.
SOURCES: Space.com, Wired, Forbes, The Guardian