NASA's Dawn spacecraft moves in on dwarf planet Ceres
Updated: 2015-03-06 16:30
NASA's Dawn spacecraft heads toward the dwarf planet Ceres as seen in this undated artist's conception released January 22, 2014.[Photo/Agencies]
LOS ANGELES - The largest celestial body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter welcomes its first visitor Friday.
NASA's Dawn spacecraft was due to slip into orbit around Ceres for the first exploration of a dwarf planet. Unlike other orbit captures that require thruster firings to slow down, the latest event is ho-hum by comparison, unfolding gradually and automatically.
Since Dawn is out of contact with Earth during the encounter, flight controllers won't receive confirmation until hours later.
"The real drama is exploring this alien, exotic world," said mission chief engineer Marc Rayman at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $473 million mission.
Once circling Ceres, Dawn will spend the next 16 months photographing the icy surface to determine whether it's active today.
Ceres is the last and final stop for Dawn, which launched in 2007 on a voyage to the main asteroid belt, a zone littered with rocky leftovers from the formation of the sun and planets some 4.5 billion years ago.
Dawn earlier spent a year at Vesta exploring the Arizona-sized asteroid and sending back stunning close-ups of the lumpy surface before cruising on to Ceres.