NASA spacecraft creates history, enters dwarf planet’s orbit
Washington: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has become the first mission to achieve orbit around a dwarf planet called Ceres.
The spacecraft was approximately 61,000 km from Ceres when it was captured by the dwarf planet’s gravity on March 6.
“Since its discovery in 1801, Ceres was known as a planet, then an asteroid and later a dwarf planet, Now, after a journey of 4.9 billion kms and 7.5 years, Dawn calls Ceres, home,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission director at at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
Mission controllers at NASA’s JPL received a signal from the spacecraft that Dawn was healthy and thrusting with its ion engine, the indicator Dawn had entered orbit as planned.
“We feel exhilarated. We have much to do over the next year and a half, but we are now on station with ample reserves, and a robust plan to obtain our science objectives,” added Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
In addition to being the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet, Dawn also has the distinction of being the first mission to orbit two extraterrestrial targets.
From 2011 to 2012, the spacecraft explored the giant asteroid Vesta, delivering new insights and thousands of images from that distant world.
Ceres and Vesta are the two most massive residents of our solar system’s main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The most recent images received from the spacecraft show Ceres as a crescent, mostly in shadow because the spacecraft’s trajectory put it on a side of Ceres that faces away from the sun until mid-April.
When Dawn emerges from Ceres’ dark side, it will deliver ever-sharper images as it spirals to lower orbits around the planet.