NASA has made history once again, with its Dawn probe becoming the first spacecraft ever to circle a dwarf planet.
The probe also became the first to orbit two bodies beyond the Earth-moon system.
The NASA spacecraft is also the first exploratory space mission to use an electrically-powered ion engine rather than conventional rockets.
As reported by Phys.org, electric power is used to create charged particles of the fuel, usually the gas xenon, and accelerate them to extremely high velocities.
The electrically powered thrusters are much more fuel efficient than chemical ones, saving an enormous amount of mass as the probe needs much less fuel to complete its journey.
NASA’s Dawn enters orbit
Dawn arrived at Ceres last Friday and is currently on the dwarf planet’s dark side, with new photos of Ceres not available until April 10.
The Dawn spacecraft was approximately 61,000 km from Ceres when it was captured by the dwarf planet’s gravity at about 4.39a.m PST on Friday.
The NASA spacecraft has spent more than seven years travelling across the Solar System to intercept the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres.
Principal investigator of the Dawn mission at the University of California, Chris Russell, said it was a fantastic moment for the team.
“We feel exhilarated,” he said.
“We have so 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.”
The Dawn mission launched in September 2007, costing $473m.
The aim of the mission was to study Ceres and Vesta, the two largest objects in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter
Ceres is the biggest object in the asteroid belt at 530km wide
Dawn’ goal as it survey’s Ceres’ surface will be to help researchers determine what the dwarf planet is made of and to gain an insight into how it formed.
Dawn will also investigate Ceres’ mysterious bright spots and seek to confirm and characterize water-vapour plumes spotted recently by Europe’s Herschel Space Observatory.
The spacecraft will perform this work through to June 30, 2016.