NASA Dawn Spacecraft

Mission officials say that Dawn is scheduled to enter orbit with Ceres in March to study and photograph the celestial object up close.

When Dawn enters its orbit around Ceres, NASA says that the spacecraft will become the first ever to circle two solar system targets.

According to NASA, the Dawn spacecraft is about 640,000 kilometers from the dwarf planet target and is traveling at a speed of around 725 kilometers per hour.

Dawn, launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in 2007, already completed half of its mission back in 2012 after spending 14 months visiting and exploring Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt.  Scientists also refer to Vesta as a minor planet named Vesta 4.

“Ceres is almost a complete mystery to us,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, in a NASA press release. “Ceres, unlike Vesta, has no meteorites linked to it to help reveal its secrets. All we can predict with confidence is that we will be surprised.”

Before entering its approach phase with Ceres, the spacecraft was in a solar conjunction, meaning it was on the other side of the sun from us.  With the sun right in the middle between Earth and Dawn, those involved with its mission had limited contact with the spacecraft.

But since the sun is no longer blocking Dawn from Earth and reliable communications have been re-established, mission controllers are able to program the spacecraft’s computers with the maneuvers necessary to safely and effectively guide it to Ceres.

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