Ponder Ceres, largest resident of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, early astronomers considered it a planet. With a diameter of 598 miles, planet is a stretch. Officially, this 33rd largest object in our solar system is a dwarf planet. Large enough to be rounded by its own gravity, yet much too small for planetary respect.
Fortunately, size doesn’t matter to science. In 2007 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched the Dawn probe. Dawn’s mission – study “protoplanets” Vesta and Ceres in the asteroid belt to advance understanding of how solar systems form. In July of 2011 Dawn began a 14 month orbit of Vesta (Ceres rocky little sister with a diameter of 325 miles), March of this year found Dawn entering orbit around Ceres. On June 8, 2015 NASA released this video compilation, flying around Ceres – Taken from Dawn’s first orbital mapping and navigational images.
Remarkable as it is, the video hasn’t solved one of Ceres greatest mysteries, a curious surface anomaly dubbed the double bright spot. Over the next few months NASA is asking our opinion – vote volcano, geyser, rock, ice, salt deposit or other at the link below.
Image – NASA
NASA’s New Horizons probe left Earth over 9 years ago. Where does nine years find Horizons? 4.8 billion Km. from Earth, barely 3 months away from Pluto and able to transmit the first colour photograph of Pluto and its largest moon Charon.
Still 115 million Km. away, New Horizons first image is being called a “preliminary reconstruction”. Mark July 14 on your calendar as the anticipated date New Horizons officially enters the “Pluto system” – close enough to capture detailed surface images of areas no wider than a few kilometers, despite traveling at speeds of 50,000 Km/hour.
Discovered by Clyde W. Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto’s brief distinction as ninth planet from the Sun fizzled in 2006 with International Astronomical Union rewriting the definition of “planet”. Tiny Pluto, abut half the width of America, has since answered to the name “dwarf planet”. Size isn’t everything – Pluto holds a planetary designation unique in our solar system, that of “binary planet”. Binary because the largest of Pluto’s 5 known moons is so close in size.
Ponder New Horizons – consider a decade of relentless travel across many billion kilometers of space. Keep in mind New Horizons path, science can’t draw a straight line, gas up a probe, send it on a road trip – consider plotting a course through the labyrinth of space, one that depends on gravitational pull of planets and their moons for propulsion.
I was an 8 years old dreamer when we landed on the moon. The world stopped, holding a collective breath to mark science fiction dissolving into science reality. It saddens my inner dreamer to ask how many 8 year old children today even care about remarkable space missions. Fantastic accomplishment might be commonplace these days, that doesn’t make them ordinary. New Horizons is an extraordinary realization of science. Take a moment to grasp the enormity of mankind’s progress.
This morning at 4:39 AM PST NASA’s Dawn probe made history – almost 8 years from Earth, gravitational pull 38,000 miles from Ceres captured Dawn, the first probe to orbit a dwarf planet. Discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, Ceres reigns as largest object in the “asteroid belt” between Mars and Jupiter. At 590 miles in diameter it’s also the only asteroid belt object “rounded” by gravity – composed of rock and ice, it accounts for one third the mass of our asteroid belt. Originally hailed as planet, then asteroid, science settled on dwarf planet Ceres.
Dawn has been a busy little probe – second to Ceres in pecking order of the belt is Vesta, a plucky little asteroid about a third the mass. En-route to Ceres, Dawn paid Vesta a visit in 2011. Images of Vesta indicate liquid water once flowed on her surface.
Dawn will now decrease orbital distance around Ceres, by August 2015 a projected distance of 1,480 Km begins a 2 month high resolution 3D mapping phase. November 2015 finds Dawn orbiting a mere 375 Km., for 3 months of gamma-ray, neutron detection and gravitational analysis.
NASA hoped Dawn could leave Ceres for a rendezvous with asteroid Pallas in 2018 – Dawn simply won’t be able to muster enough steam. With just enough fuel too navigate proposed orbital inclinations, Dawn will forever remain an orbiting satellite of Ceres.
From 147,000 miles (237,000 kilometers) away on January 25, 2015.
From 90,000 miles (145,000 kilometers) away on February 4, 2015.
From 52,000 miles (83,000 kilometers) away on February 12, 2015.
From 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers) away on February 19, 2015.
Ceres is seen from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on March 1, just a few days before the mission achieved orbit around the previously unexplored dwarf planet. The image was taken at a distance of about 30,000 miles (about 48,000 kilometers).