You’d think that our first orbit around a dwarf planet would be around lonely Pluto, but it will have to wait for its first visitor in July. Today, NASA announced that its Dawn spacecraft has successfully entered the orbit of Ceres, another dwarf planet and the largest object in the asteroid belt where trillions of rocks tumble between Mars and Jupiter.
“After a journey of 3.1 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) and 7.5 years, Dawn calls Ceres, home,” said Dawn’s chief engineer Marc Rayman in a press release.
Ceres might look like any other cratered rock falling through the solar system, but Ceres has secrets to tell. We know that the dwarf planet has water in it, maybe 43 million cubic miles of it, but scientists are hoping to find evidence of liquid water as well. That could possibly mean life, or at least an expansion of the habitats we believe could be habitable.
Ceres is also enticing us with two bizarre bright spots on its surface. If those spots turn our to be ice volcanoes (a mound of ice formed from liquid water escaping the surface) or even just simple patches of ice reflecting sunlight back at Dawn, the hope for water in other forms stays alive.
The dwarf planet will tell us about our solar system in adolescence. Seeing as it is a body that never quite made it to planet status, its composition and mass should let scientists deduce how other objects in the solar system, and the asteroid belt, formed with respect to time.
It will be April before Dawn rises out from the dark side of this Texas-sized world and starts sending back data. But when it emerges from a shadow in the greatest of shadows, the spacecraft will start mapping Ceres’ surface, analyzing its chemical composition, and letting us in on the secrets of small planets.