NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is one week away from going into orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres and already it’s proving to be a fascinating little hunk of rock…mostly because we can’t be sure the bright area that we’ve seen on its surface isn’t a Death Star powering up.
Dawn launched in 2007 to investigate the two largest dwarf planets in the asteroid belt. It visited Vesta first, spending 14 months gathering data about the world before leaving and heading on to its second target, Ceres. Scientists think of Ceres as an embryonic planet. When the planets in our Solar System were coalescing from the Sun’s disk of gas and dust, Ceres wanted to become a planet but Jupiter’s stronger gravitational pull tore the would-be planet apart, leaving it as simply the largest object in the asteroid belt. Measuring about 590 miles across, Ceres makes up one quarter of the asteroid belt’s total mass.
And on March 6th, the first ever dedicated mission to this little world will go into orbit around it, unraveling its secrets. Among them, the nature of the bright area.
The most recent images of Dawn were taken when the spacecraft was about 29,000 miles from Ceres, and they reveled that the bright spot seen in earlier images is actually two spots, one brighter than the other. It’s intriguing, but it’s still too small to resolve with Dawn’s onboard cameras. We unfortunately won’t know what bright thing we’re looking at until we get there. It could be ice hidden in some pock marked crater, it could be this. Maybe.
Dawn will spend 16 months returning images and data about the little body. We’ll have a much better idea of what that bright spot is before long!