NASA launched a spacecraft back in 2007 with aims to explore the mysterious dwarf planet Ceres, a Texas-sized body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Well, it's almost there.
The Dawn spacecraft wrapped up its orbit of the asteroid belt’s second-largest object, Vesta, back in 2012 and is now zeroing in on Ceres. The craft has entered its approach phase now, and is set to arrive on March 6, 2015. This also marks the first time a spacecraft has orbited two unexplored alien worlds.
Scientists have no idea what they’ll find at the dwarf, which, at an average diameter of 590 miles, is the largest object in the asteroid belt. Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, said Ceres represents a “complete mystery” for NASA, because no meteorites with vital intel have been linked to it. With no meteorites to study, we have to go to the asteroid belt to figure out exactly what’s there.
This is a big deal, because some scientists believe Ceres might actually be able to support life, due to the fact that it houses quite a bit of ice — and possibly a massive ocean underneath its frozen crust. The tech that got Dawn there is also significant, as it utilized ion propulsion, which is much more efficient than chemical propulsion.
As explained by NASA: An electrical charge is applied to xenon gas, and charged metal grids accelerate the xenon particles out of the thruster in an ion propulsion engine. Those particles push back on the thruster as they exit, creating a reaction force that propels the spacecraft. Officials note Dawn has now completed five years of accumulated thrust time, far more than any other spacecraft.
What do you think Dawn will find when it finally arrives at Ceres?