NASA's Dawn spacecraft has begun the process of transferring to its fourth and final mapping orbit, as it continues its mission around the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn initially made orbit around Ceres on Mar. 6, and since then has provided us with increasingly detailed images and data, unlocking many of the mysteries harbored by the enigmatic celestial body.
Dawn engaged one of its three identical ion thrusters on Oct. 23. in the first of a series of maneuvers that will insert the spacecraft in to its final orbit, also known as the low-Altitude mapping orbit (LAMO), in December.
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LAMO will take Dawn to within 235 miles (380 km) of Ceres' surface, allowing the probe to capture images of the dwarf planet at a resolution of around 120 feet (35 m) per pixel.
Despite having spent over seven months around Ceres, Dawn has yet to shed light on some of the most vexing riddles posed by the dwarf planet. Among the current list of mysteries is the cause and composition of the strange white spots that mark the planet's surface, and the formation of the unusual lonely peak situated on the southern hemisphere, that looms 4 miles (6 km) above the surrounding terrain.
Dawn's new orbit will undoubtedly provide new insights and stunning imagery of Ceres. According to NASA, LAMO is set to continue until Jun. 30, 2016. Once Dawn has exhausted its supply of hydrazine fuel, the then innert spacecraft will continue to orbit Ceres for roughly 50 years before its orbit decays enough for it to smash into the dwarf planet's surface.