NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has taken new images of dwarf planet Ceres. The photos show the planet at 27 pixels across, three times better than the calibration images the spacecraft took in early December. These images will be the first in a series that will be taken for navigation purposes during the approach to Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Dawn will deliver more precise images of Ceres in the next several weeks leading up to the device’s entrance into the planet’s orbit March 6. The images will continue to improve as Dawn travels closer to the surface.
"We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that," Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission director, said in a statement Monday.
So far, the clearest photos of Ceres were taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope more than a decade ago. The most recent images taken Jan. 13 did not surpass the Hubble photos, but will at Dawn’s next imaging opportunity, which will occur at the end of January.
“Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters," said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany.
Ceres is the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system and was discovered in 1801 by Guiseppe Piazza. It is the largest body in the main asteroid belt and has an average diameter of 590 miles. Scientists believe it contains a significant amount of ice and that its surface may conceal an ocean.
Dawn’s arrival at Ceres will be the first time a spacecraft has visited a dwarf planet.