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Confirmed: I am in orbit around #Ceres

That's what the spacecraft Dawn said on Twitter today.  After more than 7 years and a visit to the asteroid Vesta, Dawn has reached its goal!

I hope the white spots on Ceres are a solar power plant for an alien base, or at least a cryovolcano - a volcano that shoots up liquid water instead of lava.  But probably they're just ice or snow. 

Still, this is pretty cool!  Ceres is probably a protoplanet whose growth got stopped by the huge gravitational pull of Jupiter.  We know it has water vapor in its tiny atmosphere.  It may have a lot of ice inside, unlike most of the rocky asteroids.  So we can learn a bit about how planets first formed by visiting this world.

It's also cool how we got there.  NASA couldn't explore Ceres without ion propulsion.   Dawn started out its journey with 425 kilograms of the noble gas xenon.   It turns this gas into ions and shoots them out the back to accelerate through space.  So, it rides through space on a blue-green beam of ions!

The force of this beam is tiny: 90 millinewtons, like a piece of paper pushing your hand down.  But it's a way to use very little mass to push the spacecraft for a long time.  Dawn has accelerated to a speed of 38,300 kilometers per hour this way! 

This is the kind of thing we can do if we stop fussing and fighting for a while.  Are we really ready to explore the universe?  Maybe not yet.   But someday....

#ceres #astronomy  
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