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8 trail-blazing images from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

By: Katherine Butler on Jan. 4, 2012, 8:47 a.m.
Artist's concept of Dawn spacecraft


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Artist's concept of Dawn spacecraft

One of JPL’s current projects, Dawn, is a robotic spacecraft sent on an exploratory mission to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Launched in 2007, it is expected to study the asteroid Vesta and then the dwarf planet Ceres, both inhabitants of the asteroid belt. Vesta is the size of Arizona. Dawn is currently mapping Vesta and is expected to depart that orbit in July 2012. Dawn has an on-board camera that can map the surface of the object in both a clear and color filter. After Vesta, Dawn will travel to the dwarf planet Ceres. Christopher Russell is the principal investigator of the Dawn Mission and a professor of geophysics and space physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. As he told NPR, Ceres is “the biggest asteroid in the main belt. In fact, it's so large that it has been given the name Dwarf Planet. So it's in the same category as Pluto and a number of other bodies in the more distant solar system.”