Once again a celestial body in the Solar System will give up some of its secrets. Ceres, a dwarf planet in between Mars and Jupiter will receive its first visit from a manmade space probe this Friday, March 6th 2015. The probe, called Dawn, left Earth in 2007 and previously made a visit to Vesta, an even smaller inhabitant of the Solar system.
Intriguingly, there is a mystery about Ceres that has only been discovered a couple of weeks ago by Dawn itself. Two bright spots on the surface, very close together inside the same crater, create the impression that Ceres is winking at us. You'd be forgiven for thinking that aliens are shining a welcoming light at the visitor from humanity. But in all seriousness, planetary scientists are eager to find out what causes this truly unique phenomenon. The light is coming from a region where recently water vapour was detected. So icy surfaces seem to be one of the possibilities.
Ceres is the largest rock in the 'asteroid belt' between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Its diameter, almost 1000 km, is about one thirteenth of the Earth's and half the diameter of the Moon:. (Vestas diameter is roughly half of that.) The asteroid belt is filled with millions of objects. Probably a planet failed to form there in the early days of the Solar System, due to Jupiter's gravity. One of the reasons planetary scientists are interested in this region is they hope to find out more about how the Solar System formed. Here's a popular video about the scientific objectives of the mission, narrated by the recently deceased actor Leonard Nimoy (dr. Spock from Star Trek):
And here's a lengthy in-depth news conference for folks who can't get enough:
Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.