Friday, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft became the first space probe in history to ever reach a dwarf planet.
Since it was launched in 2007, Dawn has been accelerating through space and on Friday morning at 9:39 am ET, NASA confirmed that the spacecraft had reached its final: the dwarf planet Ceres.
“We feel exhilarated,” Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission at the University of California, said in a NASA statement. “We have 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.”
Ceres is the largest object in a strip of rocky debris, called the asteroid belt, floating in space between the planets Mars and Jupiter. In fact, it was the first dwarf planet ever discovered back in 1801.
At that time, however, it was classified as a planet, and then later as an asteroid. Today, it meets the criteria for a relatively new class of objects called dwarf planets — a classification that includes the much maligned and very loved Pluto.
Ceres will be the second object that Dawn will orbit. And this is what makes Dawn so unique: When it reaches Ceres at around 7:20 am ET on Friday, it will become the first spacecraft in history to ever orbit two bodies in its lifetime.
This is made possible by its ion propulsion system, which gave the spacecraft enough power to escape the gravitational grip of Vesta when it orbited in 2011, and continue on through space toward Ceres.