NASA released new images Monday of the dwarf planet Ceres that hint at crater-like structures on the surface.
The images of Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, were taken from a distance of 238,000 miles on Jan. 13. With a diameter of about 590 miles, NASA describes the dwarf planet as “Texas-sized.”
“We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that,” Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, said in a release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took the best images to date of Ceres in 2003 and 2004. While the latest set of images is only at about 80 percent of Hubble’s resolution, NASA expects the decade-old images to be eclipsed when the spacecraft has another imaging opportunity at the end of this month.
Dawn, which was launched in 2007, is expected to enter the dwarf planet’s orbit around March 6 for the first time. Scientists have long thought the surface contains vast portions of ice or even an ocean, and have previously detected water vapor.
Ceres falls into the same unique category of dwarf planets as Pluto. According to the International Astronomical Union, this classification is for a celestial body that “is in orbit around the Sun,” “has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape” and “has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit,” meaning the body is big enough to clear objects like asteroids and debris out of its orbital way.