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We’ve Finally Reached a Dwarf Planet (and It’s Not Pluto)

We’ve Finally Reached a Dwarf Planet (and It’s Not Pluto)

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.

NASACeres_PICCeres as seen from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on March 1, 30,000 miles  (48,000 kilometers) above the icy surface.

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.

IMAGE: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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Comments

  1. Orionsangel says:

    So there’s a dwarf planet between Mars and Jupiter and I bet the average person has no idea. Why were we never taught about Ceres in school? All we learned about were the 9 planets. I guess it’s because dwarf planets get no love. Once they said Pluto was a dwarf planet. They quickly removed it’s status as one of the 9 planets. It’s dwarf planet discrimination! lol!

    • boB says:

      When I was growing up, Ceres was simply referred to as the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt.  I don’t know if “dwarf planet” was a designation that was used back then.

  2. Gouki Mishima says:

    It’s an exciting time for space exploration!