NASA’s Dawn probe is currently orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres. In early June, it will enter lowest ever orbit around Ceres.

This month, Dawn will get to its final orbit around Ceres. It will enter an elliptical path that will take the probe 10 times closer to the surface than it’s ever been. The probe will orbit less than 30 miles (50 km) above Ceres’s surface. Then, it will be ready to gather gamma ray and neutron spectra, as well as obtain detailed, high-resolution images. Therefore, scientists expect to understand chemical changes in the surface’s uppermost layer.

“The team is eagerly awaiting the detailed composition and high-resolution imaging from the new, up-close examination,” Carol Raymond, principal investigator for the Dawn mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “These new high-resolution data allow us to test theories formulated from the previous data sets and discover new features of this fascinating dwarf planet.”

From this vantage point, scientists will have the opportunity to closely study specific sites of interest, such as Occator Crater, home to highly reflective salt deposits similar to those seen on Earth.

This NASA diagram shows the initial orbit of the Dawn spacecraft around Ceres (outer green ellipse) and its near-final orbit (center green ellipse), with the blue lines indicating the probe’s path in between. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“As a bonus objective, scientists would like to study the elements in one of their favorite places (and perhaps one of yours as well): Occator Crater, site of the highly reflective salt deposits, famous not only on Ceres but also on Earth and everywhere else that readers follow Dawn’s discoveries,” Marc Rayman, mission director and chief engineer for Dawn at JPL, wrote in an April 29 blog post. “Studying this one crater and the area around it (together known as a geological unit) could reveal more about the complex geology there.”

NASA’s Dawn Probe

NASA launched the Dawn mission in 2007. In 2011, the probe reached Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt after Ceres. After orbiting Vesta for a year, the probe moved on to Ceres, entering the dwarf planet’s orbit in March 2015. Dawn spent more than a year studying the object.

At first, the mission team hoped to extend the spacecraft’s mission, which NASA planned to officially end in June 2016. They wanted Dawn to visit another object in the asteroid belt called Adeona. However, the space agency decided to continue investigating Ceres.

The spacecraft is equipped with a fuel-efficient ion drive that allowed it to fly between asteroids.

The mission team found a way to get into orbit where the probe will remain for up to 50 years. But the spacecraft won’t be in communication with Earth for much longer. When its fuel runs out, the vehicle won’t be able to orient its solar panels toward the Sun, and it will eventually run out of power.

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Thumbnail image: An artistic rendering of Dawn at Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech