Dawn spacecraft is approaching the asteroid Ceres

View of Ceres during the approach of the Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The Dawn spacecraft mission by NASA has returned a first image of its final target: The dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is the main body in the asteroid belt that lays between Mars and Jupiter. The Dawn spacecraft calibrated its cameras by taking this image from the planet towards which it is heading.

As is required for an object to be called a dwarf planet, Ceres is large enough that it has shaped itself into a ball by means of its own gravity. It is however still quite small: approximately 950km in diameter (as to 12742km for Earth and 3474km for the Moon). Ceres is the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system and it will be the first dwarf planet to be visited by a spacecraft when Dawn arrives there in the beginning of 2015. The second one that will be visited is Pluto, that will be reached by the New Horizons mission from NASA near the end of 2015. Both these two dwarf planets are interresting objects of study, as they both can help us understand how our solar system looked when it was first formed. This will bring us more information on what kind of objects are all traveling around there in the asteroid belt (where Ceres is) and the Kuiper belt (where Pluto is). This understanding will also help us to determine which object might ever become a threat to Earth and how we can mitigate this threat, as some NEOs are supposed to originate from these regions.

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