It’s going to be a ball when NASA’s Dawn spacecraft finally arrives at the dwarf planet Ceres, and mission managers have now inked in the schedule on Dawn’s dance card.
Dawn has been cruising toward Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, since September 2012. That’s when it departed from its first dance partner, Vesta.
Ceres presents an icy — possibly watery — counterpoint to the dry Vesta, where Dawn spent almost 14 months. Vesta and Ceres are two of the largest surviving protoplanets — bodies that almost became planets — and will give scientists clues about the planet-forming conditions at the dawn of our solar system.
When Dawn enters orbit around Ceres, it will be the first spacecraft to see a dwarf planet up-close and the first spacecraft to orbit two solar system destinations beyond Earth.
“Our flight plan around Ceres will be choreographed to be very similar to the strategy that we successfully used around Vesta,” said Bob Mase, Dawn’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “This approach will build on that and enable scientists to make direct comparisons between these two giants of the asteroid belt.”
As a prelude, the team will begin approach operations in late January 2015. The next month, Ceres will be big enough in Dawn’s view to be imaged and used for navigation purposes. Dawn will arrive at Ceres — or, more accurately, it will be captured by Ceres’ gravity — in late March or the beginning of April 2015.