US space agency NASA’s probe at Ceres is finally going to yield results as its Dawn spacecraft will arrive at the surface of the dwarf planet on Friday morning.
With its arrival, Dawn will commence unraveling Ceres’ mysteries, including the two bright spots blazing on its cratered surface, which have been baffling the scientists for a long time.
“It’s clear that discoveries lie ahead and Ceres will be revealed in stunning detail, just like Vesta,” Carol Raymond, Deputy Principal Investigator of Dawn probe mission, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said at a press conference on Monday.
NASA’s investigative spacecraft is set to slip into Ceres’ orbit at 7:20 am EST (1220 GMT) on Friday. With its arrival, Dawn will wrap up its two-and-a-half years of a deep-space chase mission to unravel the dwarf planet.
Ceres is the largest object located in the main asteroid belt lying between Jupiter and Mars.
If everything goes well as per the plan, Dawn will become the first ever spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet and circle two celestial bodies beyond the Earth-moon system.
Dawn orbited around the protoplanet Vesta, which is the second-largest celestial body located in the asteroid belt apart from Ceres. The spacecraft orbited Vesta between July 2011 and September 2012, before finally departing for Ceres.
The NASA scientists are hoping that Dawn’s observations will immensely contribute in understanding what led to the generation of mysterious bright spots at Ceres.
“These bright spots were extremely surprising to our team of scientists, and they have been puzzling everybody who’s seen them,” Raymond said.
According to Raymond, the two bright spots suggest the presence of highly reflective material, most likely salts or ice, on Ceres.
NASA will also be probing for signs of water vapor originating from Ceres’ surface— a stimulating phenomenon that was first noticed in 2013 by the researchers who were studying data collected by Herschel Space Observatory in Europe.
The NASA probe won’t commence its science experiments right away. Rather, the spacecraft will be spending nearly six weeks while spiraling down to its first orbit, which will be completed on April 23. The spacecraft will then examine Ceres with the help of a series of orbits, with the last one taking it to within only 235 miles (378 km) of the surface of the dwarf planet, until June 2016, when the mission is scheduled to end.