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Photo via NASA/first views of Ceres from Dawn probe
Photo via NASA/first views of Ceres from Dawn probe

Talk about an incredible journey. The Dawn probe, which was launched in 2007, made it into dwarf planet Ceres’ orbit this a.m.

NASA reported that Dawn made it to Ceres this morning at 7:39 a.m. ET, which made it the first aircraft to ever orbit a dwarf planet. It took Dawn nearly 7.5 years to travel the 3.1 billion miles to Ceres. NASA reports that Dawn’s signal is healthy and it entered Ceres’ orbit about 8:36 a.m. ET.

Dawn will observe Ceres for the next 16 months. The dwarf planet has long been an object of intrigue and mystery for astronomers since it was discovered in 1801, as it has been identified as a planet, then an asteroid and now a dwarf planet. It is one of the two largest objects, the other being Vesta, between Mars and Jupiter and is only 590 miles wide.

Photo via NASA/artist's conception of Dawn reaching a dwarf planet
Photo via NASA/artist’s conception of Dawn reaching a dwarf planet

The first images, taken March 1, show Ceres as a crescent because Dawn is on the side of Ceres that faces away from the sun until mid-April. NASA reports that images taken after then will show “ever-sharper images.”

“We feel exhilarated,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in the NASA statement. “We have much to do over the next year and a half, but we are now on station with ample reserves, and a robust plan to obtain our science objectives.”

Why study Ceres and Vesta?

The two bodies are “intact protoplanets from the very dawn of the solar system,” Dawn Deputy Principal Investigator Carol Raymond, also of JPL, said during a news conference Monday (March 2) as Space.com reports.” So they’re literally fossils that we can investigate to really understand the processes that were going on at that time.”

The Ceres news precedes another major probe arrival: This July, NASA’s New Horizons probe will reach Pluto to study that dwarf planet and its five moons.

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