Serious About Ceres

NASA’s Dawn started orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres last Friday, making it the first spacecraft to ever orbit a dwarf planet. After a seven and a half year, 3.1 billion mile journey, Dawn reached the small, icy protoplanet that orbits the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Ceres has been a bit of a headache since its discovery in 1801 as it hasn’t easily fallen into a category. First it was a planet, then labeled an asteroid, and now has been declared a dwarf planet, like our old friend Pluto. Characteristically, this confusion makes sense. It’s small, about the size of Texas, but too big for an asteroid as it’s about a third the mass of the whole asteroid belt. And it’s round like a planet, not misshapen and lumpy like an asteroid. But again, super small. Astronomers believe it is a leftover piece from planetary building blocks that formed the solar system some four and a half billion years ago.

Dawn has a lot of work to do before its fuel runs out. The craft will make a world map of the tiny planet, and then a survey orbit, and then a mapping orbit, and then a picture taking orbit, and then a mapping of the elements orbit. Astronomers are looking forward to finding out if Ceres has ice or mineral salt deposits, or maybe even reservoirs of liquid seawater.

What a rush (…of water, maybe. We’ll see).

3 thoughts on “Serious About Ceres

  1. I like your analysis of the confusion surrounding Ceres’ status as an object in space. It is especially difficult to categorize something that we cannot see very well due to its distance from Earth and its tiny size compared to other planets far away. Hopefully NASA’s Dawn will make this task easier and more objective as we observe certain features of this object. Personally, I think the evidence thus far makes Ceres look like a dwarf planet, as it is similar in size and shape to Pluto. It will be exciting to see the progress made as the satellite continues to orbit Ceres!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Similar in shape, yes, but Ceres is, in fact, much smaller than Pluto. Pluto’s diameter is almost 3 Ceres wide. I don’t really think the sizing here matters too much, considering that both dwarfs are much smaller than their planetary peers. I had no idea that Ceres might have water reservoirs! I wonder what a discovery like that would mean for it’s qualification as a planet.


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