The Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting Ceres for three years now, beaming back exclusive snapshots from the first-ever mission sent to investigate the 592-mile-wide dwarf planet.
Its quest to uncover the secrets of the only dwarf planet in our inner solar system has taken Dawn as close as 240 miles from Ceres, reveals the Dawn Journal, a blog managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which yesterday released a new photo of the mysterious icy world.
But the intrepid space probe aims to take things even further and plans to buzz Ceres from an even lower altitude.
The spacecraft will be diving down less than 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the dwarf planet’s surface, NASA announced in a news release. That’s 10 times closer to Ceres than Dawn has ever ventured before.
According to NASA, the Dawn spacecraft is already getting ready its closest encounter with Ceres and has started maneuvering itself into this lowest-ever orbit.
“Hold on, I’m going low!” the spacecraft’s Twitter account disclosed yesterday evening.
Dawn is expected to begin its descent toward the historic orbit on June 7, Business Insider reports. Soon after that, the spacecraft will start investigating the chemical composition of Ceres’ uppermost layer by collecting data on the dwarf planet’s gamma ray and neutron radiation spectrum.
The spacecraft’s unprecedentedly low orbit will offer a unique vantage point that is sure to yield spectacular new footage of Ceres, the largest body in the Asteroid Belt.
“The team is eagerly awaiting the detailed composition and high-resolution imaging from the new, up-close examination,” said Carol Raymond, principal investigator for the Dawn mission at JPL.
“These new high-resolution data allow us to test theories formulated from the previous data sets and discover new features of this fascinating dwarf planet,” Raymond pointed out.
In advance of the closest-ever flyby of Ceres, which is set to reveal the Texas-sized ice world as it’s never been seen before, JPL unveiled the latest Dawn image. The snapshot was captured on May 16 from an altitude of about 270 miles above the dwarf planet’s surface and is the first photo sent back by the Dawn spacecraft in more than a year.
The photo offers a dramatic view of the edge of Ceres’ disk, also called a limb, and features two prominent craters on the rough and ancient landscape.
Retired astronaut Chris Hadfield shared the Dawn image on Twitter earlier today, remarking on the battered exterior of the dwarf planet.
Buzzing a dwarf planet - @NASA's flying the Dawn spaceship down to the cratertops. Ceres (biggest in the asteroid belt) looks like it's been bombarded for billions of years - and it has. https://t.co/iRNRH35utZ pic.twitter.com/2TPjmgGnSl— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) June 1, 2018
But coming this close to the icy world is no easy task. Launched in September 2007, the venerable Dawn spacecraft will be attempting to pass over one of Ceres’ most intriguing regions — the famous Occator Crater, a massive impact site filled with shiny salt deposits — in order to pick up the faint nuclear radiation signals coming off of this area.
However, in order to do so, the aging spacecraft needs to fly over the crater about 20 times for its gamma ray and neutron detector to get an accurate reading.
As Dawn mission director Marc Rayman puts it, the spacecraft is off on a “daring adventure” rife with “daunting obstacles.”
“Attempting to repeatedly fly low over that geological unit presents daunting obstacles… It may not work, but the team will try. That’s part of what makes for a daring adventure!”
Orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, Ceres is home to an ice volcano and could be hiding a giant ocean underneath its icy crust. Dawn first reached Ceres in 2015 and is now gearing up for a second extended mission set to unravel the mysteries of the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system.