NASA’s Dawn spacecraft traveled seven and a half years to reach the second stop of its mission: orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, largest asteroid in the belt between Saturn and Mars.
Confirmation of a clean mosey into orbit came this morning:
"Usually, there's a big, bone-rattling, whiplash-producing maneuver," Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and the mission director told NBC News, "but Dawn flies most of the time on this pillar of blue-green xenon ions, just like a spacecraft from science fiction. ... It's a beautiful celestial pas de deux, these two dancers together. I think it's really a remarkable scene to imagine. It's so different from what we're accustomed to from five decades of previous space exploration."
The next month will bring some gentle tweaks to the orbit to set up Dawn for a slow spiral down to just over two hundred miles above Ceres’ surface, reports the BBC. The observations that the team hopes to make should provide detailed maps of the dwarf planet, answer the mystery of those two bright spots it sports and ultimately tell us about the beginning of the Solar System.
Both Ceres and the asteroid Vesta—Dawn’s first stop—are "like fossils from the dawn of the solar system, and they shed light on its origins," says Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a NASA statement.