According to a NASA statement, the agency’s Dawn probe has been snared by the gravitational pull of the dwarf planet Ceres. The capture took place on March 6 at about 7:39 a.m. EST, when Dawn was about 38,000 miles away. Less than an hour later, Dawn signaled that it was functioning normally and that its ion engine was burning, indicating that the orbital insertion had gone smoothly.
Upon its arrival at Ceres, Dawn is on the side of the dwarf planet facing away from the Sun. However, when the probe crosses to Ceres’ light side in the middle of April, it will send back sharp new images. The images’ resolution will increase as Dawn’s orbit becomes progressively lower.
With this achievement, Dawn has become the first spacecraft to enter orbit round a dwarf planet, and the first probe to orbit two different bodies, having first visited the asteroid Vesta in 2011 and 2012. Ceres is the most massive denizen of the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, while Vesta is the second-most massive.
“We feel exhilarated,” said Chris Russell, Dawn principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We have much to do over the next year and a half, but we are now on station with ample reserves, and a robust plan to obtain our science objectives.”
“Since its discovery in 1801, Ceres was known as a planet, then an asteroid and later a dwarf planet,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission director at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles and 7.5 years, Dawn calls Ceres home.”