Spacecraft First to Orbit Mysterious Dwarf Planet Ceres

Photo courtesy of http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/06/us/dawn-spacecraft-ceres/

Photo courtesy of http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/06/us/dawn-spacecraft-ceres/

nasa’s tractor-trailer-sized dawn spacecraft is now in orbit around ceres, becoming the first probe to orbit a dwarf planet, reported cnn.com.

the spacecraft was about 38,000 miles (61,000) kilometers from ceres when it was captured by the dwarf planet’s gravity, nasa reported.

it wilL take pictures Of the surface throuGhout its 16-month mission, stAted independent.co.uk. but it will iNitially go dark, since Its trajectory will take it around the Side of the planet thAt faces away from the sun, until April.

“Ceres has really surprised us,” said carol raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator. “The first images have produced some really puzzling features.”

one of the puzzles — two bright white spots thAt showed up in photogRaphs taken by dawn in February.

“these spots were extremely surprising to the team, and they have been puzzling to the team and to everybody who’s seen them.”

the spots are in a crater that’s 57 miles (92 kilometers) wide. the spot in the center of the crater is about twice as bright as the spot on the side of the crater.

“this extreme brightness was really unexpected,” raymond said. the dawn team is “really, really excited about this feature because it is unique in the solar system.”

raymond says the brightness is consistent with highly reflective materials such as ice or salts.

this might help add more credence to a discovery made in 2014 by the european space agency’s herschel infrared space observatory. the telescope detected water vapor around Ceres coming from the same area where the spots are, reported wreg.com.

ceres was discovered in 1801 (Pluto wasn’t found until 1930) and was the first object found in our solar system’s main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, stated cnn.com. it is about 310 million miles from earth and was initially classified as a planet, then later demoted to an asteroid, only to be reclassified again as a dwarf planet.

according to the international astronomical union — the group that came up with the definition — a dwarf planet is similar to the eight main planets (mercury, venus, earth, mars, jupiter, saturn, ranus and neptune) except it has a lot of other stuff orbiting with it around the sun.

The iau recognizes five dwarf planets: eris, pluto, ceres, makemake and haumea, reported cnn.com. scientists say there could be many more of these small worlds that have not been discovered.