NASA's Dawn spacecraft is now in what the agency considers its "approach phase," as it closes in on mystery dwarf planet Ceres.

A few years ago, DAWN explored protoplanet Vesta, so when it enters Ceres' orbit, it will officially become the first spacecraft to ever explore two planetary bodies.

Dawn will also be the first spacecraft to ever visit Ceres, a mystery dwarf planet that we know very little about.

Dawn recently started its approach phase to Ceres, after spending time on the opposite side of the sun, which limited communications with the vehicle. Now, though, the craft is back, so NASA mission control recently programmed the maneuvers for its approach to Ceres.

Dawn is now 400,000 miles from Ceres and is approaching it at 450 miles per hour. It is currently on target for its rendezvous with the dwarf planet in March 2015.

Although Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, we know very little about it. Scientists believe that its composition is ice and rock and that it could even contain oceans beneath its top layer, much like Jupiter moon Europa. In January 2014, the Herschel Space Observatory detected water vapor emissions from Ceres' surface, which was completely unexpected.

Scientists hope that Dawn will uncover some of the mysteries of this strange celestial object.

"Ceres is almost a complete mystery to us," says Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission. "Ceres, unlike Vesta, has no meteorites linked to it to help reveal its secrets. All we can predict with confidence is that we will be surprised."

In 2011 and 2012, Dawn spent 14 months studying protoplanet Vesta. Images and data collected from that mission provided scientists with a geologic map of Vesta's surface. These maps indicated large meteorite impacts in Vesta's early history.

"This mapping was crucial for getting a better understanding of Vesta's geological history, as well as providing context for the compositional information that we received from other instruments on the spacecraft: the visible and infrared (VIR) mapping spectrometer and the gamma-ray and neutron detector (GRaND)," says Carol Raymond, Dawn's deputy principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Planetary bodies, such as Vesta and Ceres, are important because they are remnants of the formation of the solar system. It's possible that both bodies contain the basic building blocks associated with life, so understanding these bodies could help us figure out exactly where we, and life, came from on Earth.

[Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

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