NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, designed and built by Orbital ATK, has returned the sharpest images yet of the surface of dwarf planet Ceres, revealing that the planetary body’s bright spot has a similar companion bright area. So far, these unusual areas cannot be explained. Investigators at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have only speculated on the spots’ origins, and will wait until the spacecraft is closer to the dwarf planet to make a determination.
The Dawn spacecraft is eight years into a mission that began in an Orbital ATK assembly bay, and is now only 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers) from achieving orbit with the enigmatic dwarf planet. That rendezvous is scheduled to occur on March 6. The spacecraft’s ion engines, which were integrated by Orbital ATK, are helping to enable Dawn’s unique mission profile to visit two bodies in the asteroid belt.
Dawn’s mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK, Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.