US space agency NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is on the multi-year tour of the asteroid belt giants, is now approaching its next destination Ceres. According to the scientists, the spacecraft will enter the orbit if Ceres in March this year.
Ceres, which is considered to be a dwarf planet, is the largest body in the asteroid belt. Notably, no other spacecraft has ever visited Ceres before.
The entry of Dawn in Ceres’ orbit this March will mark the probes’ second such visit to a prior unexplored asteroid belt object.
“Ceres is almost a complete mystery to us. Ceres, unlike Vesta, has no meteorites linked to it to help reveal its secrets. All we can predict with confidence is that we will be surprised,” Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, said.
The American space agency said Dawn, which was launched in 2007, will become the first spacecraft to make an entry to Ceres’ atmosphere.
“In an ion propulsion engine, an electrical charge is applied to xenon gas, and charged metal grids accelerate the xenon particles out of the thruster. These particles push back on the thruster as they exit, creating a reaction force that propels the spacecraft,” the US space agency elaborated.
The dwarf planet Ceres, which has a diameter about 590 miles, lies between the orbits of two planets, namely Jupiter and Mars.
Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director at JPL, said, “Orbiting both Vesta and Ceres would be truly impossible with conventional propulsion. Thanks to ion propulsion, we’re about to make history as the first spaceship ever to orbit two unexplored alien worlds.”
Dawn had in 2011 toured the protoplanet Vesta, which is among the largest asteroids in the solar system.