After years of preparation, NASA is about to learn a lot more about an asteroid that, a scientist says, is "actually the largest body between the sun and Pluto that a spacecraft has not yet visited." In exploring the 600-mile-wide Ceres, "we're going to reveal the fascinating details of a giant world of rock and ice," engineer Marc Rayman tells the New York Times. There may be a substantial amount of water, too, including "ponds or lakes or even oceans"; vapor coming off the body has suggested the presence of water. Ceres has been classified as a dwarf planet, like Pluto, which is also due for a new investigation.
The New Horizons spacecraft, already on its way to Pluto, will be at its closest on July 14; at that point, if the asteroid were New York, "we could count the ponds in Central Park." That should help experts learn answers to all kinds of questions, like why Pluto has turned redder in recent years and whether it has rings. As for Ceres, which has been familiar to scientists since 1801, the Dawn spacecraft could reveal more about a mysterious light spot on the dwarf planet. It could be ice that's reflecting sunlight from a crater, NBC News reports. And hints of water bring questions about the possibility of life. (That's one thing a Mars probe was looking for before it was lost—and then, recently, discovered again.)