NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Makes History

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft successfully entered Ceres’ orbit early on Friday, making history as the first mission to achieve orbit around a dwarf planet.

Dawn was approximately 38,000 miles from Ceres when it was captured by the dwarf planet’s gravity at approximately 7:39 a.m. ET.

Ceres, which lies between Mars and Jupiter, is 310 million miles from Earth.

Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which is managing the mission, received a signal from Dawn at 8:36 a.m ET, showing that the spacecraft was healthy and thrusting with its ion engine.

The engine thrust was a key indicator that Dawn had entered Ceres’ orbit as planned Fox news reported.

The spacecraft’s trajectory means it is currently on the side of Ceres that faces away from the Sun, so the most recent images taken by Dawn on Mar. 1 show Ceres as a crescent.

As Dawn emerges from Ceres’ dark side around mid April, it will deliver ever-sharper images and a myriad of other measurements as it spirals closer and closer to Ceres during the year.

“We feel exhilarated,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “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.”

With a diameter of 590 miles, it’s the biggest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, orbiting about 250 million miles from the sun.

When Ceres was discovered in 1801, it was considered one of the major planets — but as more asteroids were discovered, it came to be left off the list.

According to NBC news, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union classified Ceres as a dwarf planet, along with Pluto, because it’s big enough to retain a round shape but doesn’t necessarily stand out in a celestial crowd.

Dawn is the first spacecraft to go into orbit around a dwarf planet. Another NASA probe, New Horizons, is due to fly past Pluto in July.

Will these close-ups change Ceres’ planetary label again? Rayman doesn’t much care about the nomenclature. “Whatever you call it, it’s something very special,” he said.