Mission managers have finished creating a schedule of scientific operations for Dawn, which has been cruising toward Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, since September 2012, when it departed its first cosmic target, the asteroid Vesta.
Ceres could present an icy, even possible watery counterpoint to the dry Vesta, where Dawn spent almost 14 months orbiting and gathering data.
Vesta and Ceres are two of the largest surviving protoplanets -- cosmic bodies that almost became planets -- and will give provide clues about the planet-forming conditions at the dawn of our solar system, NASA said Wednesday.
"Our flight plan around Ceres will be choreographed to be very similar to the strategy that we successfully used around Vesta," said Bob Mase, Dawn's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This approach will build on that and enable scientists to make direct comparisons between these two giants of the asteroid belt."
Dawn will make its first full characterization of Ceres from a distance of about 8,400 miles above its icy surface, NASA said, then will enter ever-closer orbits as it gathers additional data.