NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has traveled roughly 3 billion miles at this point and it’s finally set its sights on the dwarf planet Ceres. Images of Ceres were released back in December, but those images were just for calibration. Dawn’s recently captured pictures are about 27 pixels across, about three times better than what it took last month.
Ceres is the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It’s just 590 miles across but that’s large enough for it to be considered a “dwarf planet.”
This image, taken Tuesday, is enhanced from its original size. The photo was taken some 238,000 miles away — about the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
A bright spot in the northern hemisphere and two dark spots in the southern hemisphere can be seen. These spots were first viewed by the Hubble telescope some ten years ago, but these new images detail dark extensions from the spots that were previously unseen. The Hubble images are still some of the best pictures ever taken of Ceres, but Dawn will soon surpass those images once it gets close enough to the dwarf planet. It is planned to go into orbit with Ceres come March 6 and is scheduled for a 16 month study.
The original goal of the Dawn spacecraft was too observe the two largest objects in the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres. Dawn has already sent back over 30,000 images of Vesta. Dawn will become the first spacecraft to ever rendezvous with a dwarf planet.