'I Am in Orbit Around Ceres,' Spacecraft Tweets

Dawn, pulled in by dwarf planet's gravity, is first craft to orbit 2 extraterrestrial objects
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 6, 2015 9:57 AM CST
'I Am in Orbit Around Ceres,' Spacecraft Tweets
This Feb. 19, 2015, file image provided by NASA shows the dwarf planet Ceres, taken by the space agency's Dawn spacecraft from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles.   (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, File)

You heard it straight from the spacecraft's mouth: "Confirmed: I am in orbit around #Ceres." That was the tweet sent out from the Dawn Mission at 9:37am EST this morning to announce NASA's first spacecraft to arrive at a dwarf planet. The agency confirmed the Dawn entered Ceres' orbit in the asteroid belt nestled between Mars and Jupiter, the AP reports. A NASA press release says the spacecraft was about 38,000 miles away from Ceres when it was sucked in by the dwarf planet's gravity around 7:39am; the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory received a confirmation ping at 8:36am that Dawn was "healthy and thrusting with its ion engine"—a sure sign it achieved orbit. "We feel exhilarated," says Christopher Russell, the spacecraft's lead investigator, per the release.

Ceres wasn't the Dawn's only stop on its 7.5-year, 3.1 billion-mile journey: From 2011 to 2012, the spacecraft poked around the Vesta asteroid, making it the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial objects, NASA notes. This feat wouldn't have been possible without the high-powered, Star Wars-like ion engines that pushed the Dawn over that massive distance with relatively little fuel, USA Today notes. The Ceres mission, which will last until at least mid-2016, will attempt to answer questions—about possible oceans, ice caps, or life—that have lurked since the dwarf planet was discovered in 1801. It's been "like your secret neighbor. Ceres would tell us nothing," Russell tells the paper. And Vesta and Ceres are just the start: The New Horizons spacecraft is set to pass Pluto over the summer, per the AP. (Maybe now we can figure out what those mysterious bright spots on Ceres are.)

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