Watch NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Buzz the Dwarf Planet Ceres in the Asteroid Belt

Last March, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft became the first explorer to visit a dwarf planet. Primarily a science mission, Dawn will map the surface of the asteroid belt’s largest citizen, Ceres, to learn more about what the early solar system was like. And now you can also visit Ceres—NASA recently sewn together 80 images of the dwarf planet in a 3D video tour of the surface.

They were able to add depth and dimension by analyzing and comparing overlapping images. The images were taken at orbital heights of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) and 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) – and even greater detail is expected as Dawn’s future orbits bring it closer to the surface. (Note from NASA: the vertical dimension has been exaggerated by two and a star field has been added for greater effect.)

Ceres is 25% of the mass of the asteroid belt, and unlike most of its irregularly shaped neighbors, it is massive enough to be nearly spherical like a moon or planet. Scientists believe this may provide a good indication of what a rocky planet like Earth may have looked like when it formed early in the solar system’s history.

To provide a more complete picture of Ceres, Dawn will measure its mass, shape, volume and rotation and also research the mineral composition and internal structure. Models of the dwarf planet’s interior suggest that its mantle could be made up of a mush of water and dirt it contains more fresh water than Earth.

Ceres, second from bottom, shown to scale.

Indeed, the first images of the Dawn mission showed mysterious luminous points on the surface. We won’t know what those bright spots are until Dawn descends and irons out more details, but highly reflective surface ice patches are a possibility.

The discovery of water on Ceres would have implications for space exploration. Water is a potential source of hydration, breathable air, and rocket fuel, and will therefore prove a valuable resource for space wanderers.

For this reason, some have proposed that Ceres would make a good alien outpost. Its low gravity makes landing and takeoff less energy-intensive, and resources on the surface could fuel missions or even trips to the outer solar system. For now, it’s a beautifully alien place to visit in videos, but the data collected by the Dawn mission could bring future missions, robotic or human, back to the dwarf planet.

Image credit: NASA

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