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NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Finds Icy Ceres Cratered


The dwarf planet, Ceres, among thousands of small planetary bodies that orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter, revealed signs of a cratered surface in images taken by NASA’s Dawn mission spacecraft, which is closing in for a lengthy orbital encounter.

Dawn is on course to maneuver into its initial orbit of the 600 mile-wide Ceres on March 6.

Hints of cratering emerged in a Jan. 13 navigation image released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory this week. Pictures of the grayish orb promise to provide even greater detail in the coming days. The mid-month shot was captured as Dawn moved within 238,000 miles of Ceres and carries a resolution about 80 percent as sharp as photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope just over a decade ago.

Credit: NASA

See more images: Dawn Delivers New Image of Ceres

“Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for Dawn’s framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.

The solar powered, ion propulsed Dawn spacecraft was launched Sept. 27, 2007 to start a $466 million mission that took it first to the large asteroid Vesta in August 2011. The robotic explorer pulled away from Vesta in May 2012 to begin its journey to Ceres.

As Dawn makes its way to its final destination, scientists raised the possibility that Ceres is not only an icy body, but one that may host subsurface liquid water. If so, the large asteroid may host a habitable environment.

In early 2014, scientists associated with the European Space Agency’s Hershel space observatory announced the discovery of a thin atmosphere of water vapor at Ceres.

Dawn is close to becoming the first spacecraft to visit two solar system destinations.

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