NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is approaching the dwarf planet Ceres. On February 12, 2015, when it was at a distance of about 83,000 kilometers (about 52,000 miles), it took some pictures that show us Ceres with a quality never seen before, allowing us to see its craters. The photos taken previously had puzzled scientists for the presence of some white spots but the new images don’t solve the mystery.
The dwarf planet Ceres was discovered in 1801 by astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi and is the largest celestial body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. If you think that Pluto was mistreated after being demoted to a dwarf planet, remember that Ceres was initially classified as a planet but was later demoted to a mere asteroid. In 2006 its classification changed again and is now considered a dwarf planet.
The Dawn spacecraft is about to reach Ceres after leaving the giant asteroid Vesta’s orbit in September 2012. It’s a bit late in its schedule because in September 2014 it had some serious problems. Probably an electrical component of its ion propulsion was disabled by some high-energy particles that hit Dawn. As if that wasn’t enough, the main antenna couldn’t pointed at Earth so communications were slow because they had to use a secondary antenna.
NASA engineers managed to restore Dawn’s functionality and it’s now expected to reach Ceres on March 6. The probe will thus have the opportunity to study this dwarf planet in order to understand its various mysteries and provide new information on the early life of the solar system, of which Ceres is a kind of fossil.
The information we have on Ceres composition are mostly deductions made through spectroscopic measurements. An interesting element to consider is the presence of water. The mysterious white spots on the surface could be due to ice that reflects sunlight.
An intriguing possibility is that below the surface there is liquid water. It’s possible that among the minerals that form Ceres there’s a good amount of olivine. This mineral can transform following a process called serpentinization, which produces heat. It’s just one of many possibilities that will be verified following the findings of the Dawn space probe.
The studies of the giant asteroid Vesta made by Dawn are still keeping busy scientists after a few years. Ceres is another celestial body with very interesting features and a comparison between it and Vesta will provide more information on the processes of planet formation.