The Dawn space probe is about to claim a first in solar system exploration. After spending over a year studying the asteroid Vesta, it is about to depart towards the dwarf planet Ceres. This will make it the first space mission to orbit and study two different objects in the asteroid belt and the first mission to ever study a dwarf planet. If Dawn’s time at Ceres reveals as many beautiful pictures as it got from Vesta, we should be in for quite a treat.
Dawn was launched in 2007 with the mission to explore the make up of the asteroid belt by studying its two largest objects. Scientists hope to use the information obtained through this mission to better understand the processes that formed the planets of the inner solar system. After reaching Vesta in 2011, the Dawn spacecraft’s investigation of the object has revealed that it is actually the remnant of a proto-planet whose development was cut short by the gravitational pull of Jupiter. Using an ion drive, Dawn will depart Vesta on Sept. 4 and make its 2 and a half year journey to Ceres.
While Vesta looks every bit like the asteroid it is classified as, the round dwarf planet Ceres faced a series of status changes ever since it was discovered in 1801. The spherical, 510 mile wide dwarf was first categorized as a planet and even given its own planetary symbol. Due to its relatively small size, and the discovery of the asteroids that resided in the belt with it, it was then downgraded to asteroid status. In 2006, when Pluto was controversially stripped of its planetary status, Ceres was upgraded to its new designation of dwarf planet. Regardless of what astronomers want to call it, Dawn will be the first mission to ever study the moon-sized object close up.
In order to celebrate the end of this phase of Dawn’s mission, the team is throwing a “Hasta la Vesta” party on Sept. 8 with a Google+ hangout where you can learn from and interact with Dawn scientists and mission engineers.