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NASA space probe 'Dawn' enters orbit of dwarf planet
By Jean-Louis SANTINI
Washington (AFP) March 6, 2015

Bright lights on dwarf planet perplex NASA as probe nears
Washington (AFP) Feb 27, 2015 - The discovery of another bright light on the dwarf planet Ceres has NASA scientists perplexed as the US Dawn probe prepares to enter the orbit of the largest object in the asteroid belt and possibly resolve the mystery.

The images taken nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers) from Ceres show that a bright spot on the planet scientists previously discovered appears next to another slightly darker spot, NASA said in a news release.

The light appears in the same basin as the other spot, images released by NASA show.

"This may be pointing to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations," Chris Russell from the Dawn mission said.

The Dawn probe will enter the orbit of Ceres March 6. Scientists expect to receive better views of the mystery lights as the spacecraft closes in and spirals nearer the dwarf planet.

"The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size it is brighter than anything else on Ceres. This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us," said scientist Andreas Nathues who is in charge of the camera.

Scientists detected water vapor emitting from Ceres in 2012 and NASA reports the surface of the body contains "water-bearing minerals."

Launched in 2007, the Dawn probe was sent to investigate the two largest bodies in the asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn explored giant asteroid Vesta starting in 2011, providing measurements and images. After 2012, the probe left Vesta's orbit and began its journey to Ceres.

Ceres has a diameter of about 590 miles (950 kilometers) and Vesta has a diameter of about 326 miles (525 kilometers).

The US space probe Dawn began orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres on Friday on a voyage of discovery into the solar system's main asteroid belt, where it will collect a trove of data and photos, NASA said.

The probe -- the first to orbit a dwarf planet -- will stay over the mysterious body for 16 months to study its structure and gather clues to help mankind better understand how Earth and the other planets were created.

It took Dawn seven-and-a-half years and 3.1 billion miles to reach Ceres's orbit, after leaving Earth and stopping off at the Vesta asteroid for its previous exploration mission.

Dawn was captured by the dwarf planet's gravity at 1239 GMT, some 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers) from Ceres's surface.

About an hour after reaching Ceres, Dawn sent a signal to mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to say it was "healthy and thrusting with its ion engine," the space agency said.

"Ceres reached out and tenderly took Dawn into its permanent gravitational embrace, so the spacecraft is in orbit and it will spend the rest of its operational life there," said Dawn chief engineer Marc Rayman, who is also mission director at JPL.

"We feel exhilarated," said Dawn principal investigator Chris Russell from the University of California, Los Angeles.

"We have much to do over the next year and a half, but we are now on station with ample reserves, and a robust plan to obtain our science objectives."

- Bright spots, vapor plumes -

Over the next several months Dawn will spiral down toward the surface of Ceres to conduct four science orbits, collecting pictures and data on its geologic features, mineral makeup and gravity field.

By November, the probe will be as near as 230 miles to Ceres's surface, and eventually scientists hope to build a topographic map of Ceres, also called a proto-planet.

Researchers said the mission will provide valuable data about the building blocks of the solar system -- including how our own planet Earth came into being -- and about the possibility of life on Ceres.

"Ceres, that proto-planet, that beginning seed of a planet, now allows us to look back in time to see how terrestrial planets are put together," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.

"We know extensively about its ice shell, but we need to know more about it," Green added, calling Ceres a "beautiful example of our dwarf planets."

Scientists are also intrigued by two bright spots on Ceres and water vapor plumes that were spotted by European Space Agency telescopes in 2014.

"By the time we finish in mid-2016, we are going to know Ceres in exquisite detail, we're going to understand why it has very, very bright spots," said Dawn mission deputy principal investigator Carol Raymond.

"We're going to understand what Ceres means in terms of planets in our solar systems."

NASA scientists also hope to capture new photos of Ceres once Dawn emerges from the planet's dark side in April.

The last images of Ceres show a slim, pockmarked silver crescent, with most of the dwarf planet shrouded in darkness. Space buffs are eager for fresh images.

- Vesta and now Ceres -

Ceres was discovered in 1801 by Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi and was classified as a planet, only to be reclassified later as an asteroid and then a dwarf planet.

It has an average diameter of 590 miles and makes a full rotation every nine hours.

Though this is the first mission to orbit a dwarf planet, Dawn explored the giant Vesta asteroid in 2011 and 2012 before it set off for Ceres.

Ceres and Vesta are the two largest bodies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

They vary in composition, with Ceres mostly rock and ice compared to the dry Vesta asteroid, and scientists said together the missions will provide valuable data to contrast.

Launched in 2007, the $473 million Dawn mission is equipped with a high-definition camera and has an ion propulsion engine that allows it to reach high speeds and also make a slow approach for an easy drop into orbit.

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Ceres' mysterious existence has long puzzled scientists
Los Angeles (UPI) Mar 5, 2015
In less than two days, NASA will provide the closest ever view of a dwarf planet in between Mars and Jupiter that has mesmerized, puzzled and tantalized astronomers for more than two centuries. The administration's Dawn spacecraft is expected to enter Ceres' orbit Friday, finally allowing scientists to begin exploring its existence after a near eight-year voyage. Launched in Sept ... read more

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