On March 6, the Dawn spacecraft will slip into orbit around Ceres, a dwarf planet located in the main asteroid belt. This mission marks the first time a dwarf planet has been visited by a spacecraft and scientists are eager to see its surface in detail. Ceres gets its name from the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and grain crops.
Did you know that cereal comes from the word Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture and grain. Well, you may not know that there's a distant solar system world Ceres.
It was discovered 200 years ago and it's had sort of an identity crisis.
It used to be known as a planet and then an asteroid and now a dwarf planet.
Well, whatever you call it, Dawn, with its xenon ion propulsion system, is about to call it home.
Dawn is truly an historic mission. It's the first mission to orbit a main belt asteroid, and it's the first mission to orbit two interplanetary bodies, two fossils from the very beginning of our solar system and thus, it's telling us part of the story of our own beginnings.
Dawn orbited Vesta and spent fourteen months exploring that alien world.
We saw a crater there 300 miles in diameter and in the center of that crater there's a mountain that's two and a half times the height of Mount Everest.
It's very young. It formed very hot. But we also found that there was water on Vesta and that water had to come from somewhere else.
And now we're on the verge of exploring an even larger alien world, Ceres.
Thanks to Dawn's unique ion propulsion system, it has a different way of going into orbit around Ceres from what we're used to. It will slowly creep up on Ceres and gently use its ion propulsion system to gracefully slip into orbit.
Dawn is going to be revealing to us this mysterious world that for more than two centuries has been just a faint smudge of light amidst the stars. We're now getting pictures that are better than the best we'd ever had before.
The bright spot that's been seen in the approach images is very interesting because it's in the same region, where the Hershel Space Observatory detected water vapor emission from Ceres' surface.
It's possible that objects like Ceres brought water to the Earth.
It has a rocky core and an ice mantle and in the past had an ocean like Europa and Enceladus.
Dawn carries a suite of sophisticated instruments that will allow us to determine not only what Ceres looks like, but what it's made of and what its interior structure is.
So we're going to learn about the geology and the chemistry...what minerals are on Ceres. All about the nature of this world and it's like a time capsule from the dawn of the solar system.
Dawn's legacy extends beyond a good breakfast. And who knows what surprises we're gonna find at Ceres?
I love the smell of xenon in the morning.