NASA Releases Video of Flyby of Dwarf Planet Ceres

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This image of Ceres is part of a sequence taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on May 4, 2015, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers). NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is the dwarf planet Ceres. It's also the protagonist of a video released Monday by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The animation is based on 80 images captured by NASA's Dawn spacecraft during its first mapping orbit of Ceres from 8,400 miles away and navigational images from Dawn at 3,200 miles away. The video allows viewers to spend just over a minute "flying by" a distant world pocked with craters.

"We used a three-dimensional terrain model that we had produced based on the images acquired so far," Dawn team member Ralf Jaumann of the German Aerospace Center in Berlin, is quoted as saying in a press release about the video. "They will become increasingly detailed as the mission progresses—with each additional orbit bringing us closer to the surface."

Dawn made history in March when it became the first mission to enter the orbit of a dwarf planet, which like the eight major planets is round and orbits the sun but is smaller and has not cleared its orbital path of other objects. The spacecraft is scheduled to remain in orbit around Ceres for more than a year.

"Studying Ceres allows us to do historical research in space, opening a window into the earliest chapter in the history of our solar system," Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in March, just prior to Dawn entering Ceres's orbit. "Data returned from Dawn could contribute significant breakthroughs in our understanding of how the solar system formed."

Another NASA mission, New Horizons, is scheduled to fly by the dwarf planet Pluto on July 14, 2015.

Dawn and New Horizons mark our "first exploration into the real outer solar system," Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Newsweek in December, looking at the year ahead in space. These two missions are allowing scientists to study the "preserved conditions of the early solar system" from up close and to share some of the best images ever captured of these faraway dwarf planets with the public.