It's almost showtime, Ceres. NASA's Dawn spacecraft has sent back the first images of the dwarf planet after spending about a month approaching from the mysterious little world's dark side, officials at Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Friday.
"They are on the ground," Dawn's deputy principal investigator, Carol Raymond, said in an email, adding that the images will be released early next week.
Ceres is one of five dwarf planets in the solar system, and the largest member of the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists think that studying this icy little world will shed light on the early evolution of our solar system.
Until Dawn's arrival March 6, little had been known about this frigid protoplanet. Friday's images, taken from about 20,500 miles from the surface, are roughly 9.5 times better than images taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004, which were once the best available shots of the dwarf planet.
Even with this improved resolution, Friday's snapshots may not be quite as impressive as earlier images taken during Dawn's approach, because they'll only show Ceres in partial daylight and will be used only for navigation purposes, scientists said.
"We want to see exactly where Ceres is relative to ourselves and the star background," said UCLA planetary scientist Christopher Russell, the mission's principal investigator.
A few more navigation images will be taken next week, but the high-quality images that will signal the start of the science mission will come late this month, the scientists said.
"We are expecting to resolve the bright spots with the next set" of images, Russell said, referring to the mysterious, luminous areas on the surface that have piqued the interest of scientists and lay folk alike.
The bright spots may be filled with relatively "fresh material" – perhaps rich in water ice or salts, Russell said. But until they get a better look, there's no way to say for sure.
In the meantime, Hubble's blurry, decade-old snapshots may also still prove useful, because they will allow scientists to pick out any major changes over time.
"Are they consistent with what we're seeing today, or has the surface changed?" Russell said.
Although the scientists have had to wait for a month, the relative lull in the action wasn't all bad, Raymond said.
"I'm feeling pretty good because I finally had a chance to catch my breath," Raymond said. "Now we've had a chance to talk about what we think we're going to see and talk about these initial data – and get ourselves in tune with what lies ahead. It's going to be a lot of fun."