Washington, March 3 (IANS) NASA's Dawn spacecraft, set to enter the orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres on March 6, has sent some fresh images as it approaches for the historic orbit insertion.
Dawn will be the first mission to successfully visit a dwarf planet.
"Dawn is about to make history. Our team is ready and eager to find out what Ceres has in store for us," said Robert Mase, project manager for the Dawn mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in a statement.
Recent images show numerous craters and unusual bright spots that scientists believe tell how Ceres, the first object discovered in our solar system's asteroid belt, formed and whether its surface is changing.
As the spacecraft spirals into closer and closer orbits around the dwarf planet, researchers will be looking for signs that these strange features are changing, which would suggest current geological activity.
NASA's Dawn spacecraft took these images of dwarf planet Ceres from about 40,000 kms away.
Ceres appears half in shadow because of the current position of the spacecraft relative to the dwarf planet and the sun. The resolution is about 3.7 kms per pixel.
"Studying Ceres allows us to do historical research in space, opening a window into the earliest chapter in the history of our solar system," added Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.
Data returned from Dawn could contribute significant breakthroughs in our understanding of how the solar system formed, he noted.
Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi spotted Ceres in 1801.
Ceres was initially classified as a planet and later called an asteroid.
In recognition of its planet-like qualities, Ceres was designated a dwarf planet in 2006, along with Pluto and Eris.
Ceres is named for the Roman goddess of agriculture and harvests.
Craters on Ceres will similarly be named for gods and goddesses of agriculture and vegetation from world mythology. Other features will be named for agricultural festivals.
Launched in September 2007, Dawn explored the giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, capturing detailed images and data about that body.
Both Vesta and Ceres orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter, in the main asteroid belt.
"By studying Vesta and Ceres, we will gain a better understanding of the formation of our solar system, especially the terrestrial planets and most importantly the Earth," Carol Raymond, deputy project scientist at JPL, concluded.