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Dawn captures stunning views of Ceres' north pole

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Apr 18, 2015, 20:36 UTC

Sen—NASA's Dawn spacecraft has taken images of Ceres' north pole that provide the highest-resolution views of the dwarf planet to date.

Several images of the sunlit north pole were recorded on April 10 from a distance of 33,000 km (21,000 miles). The spacecraft is currently on the dark side of Ceres, so the dwarf planet only appears as a thin crescent.

Over the next few months, images of Ceres will show surface features at increasingly better resolution. Using its ion propulsion system, Dawn will manoeuvre to its first science orbit of Ceres on April 23. It will remain on a 15-day polar orbit at a distance of 13,500 km (8,400 miles) until May 9, before spiralling down to lower orbits.

All four of the spacecraft's science instruments will be trained on the surface. More than 1,000 images will be taken, with a spatial resolution almost 20 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists hope that as the resolution of the images improves they will be able to solve the mystery of Ceres' bright spots, ten of which were spotted by Hubble. These spots seem to vary in temperature from each other and their source is so far unknown.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft launched in 2007 and entered orbit around Ceres on March 6 after a journey of 4.9 billion km. Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet and also the only spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial targets, having previously explored the giant asteroid Vesta between 2011 and 2012.

Ceres, which has a diameter of about 950 km (590 miles) is the largest object in the asteroid belt. It was discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi. In 2006 the International Astronomical Union classified Ceres as a dwarf planet along with Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris.

Ceres and Vesta both followed very different evolutionary paths. Vesta appears to be a dynamic terrestrial world, similar to other members of the inner Solar System. Ceres, larger yet less dense, with water vapour in its thin atmosphere and a body composed of 25 per cent water ice, is more reminiscent of members of the outer Solar System. Dawn's mission to study these two worlds will give scientists a better understanding of the formation of the Solar System.

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This animation shows the north pole of dwarf planet Ceres as seen by the Dawn spacecraft on April 10, 2015. Dawn was at a distance of 33,000 km (21,000 miles) when its framing camera took these images. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA