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Ceres, also known as 1 Ceres, is the smallest dwarf planet by both equatorial diameter and mass. It is located in the main asteroid belt and is believed to have no atmosphere at all. It the largest and most massive asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter(main belt). It is or 975×909 km and has a mass of 9.5×1020. The asteroid represents 1/3 of all of the mass of the asteroid belt. It revolves around the sun every 1679.819 days and has a very small axial tilt. The surface is relatively warm. The temperature is thought to be in the neighborhood of -38°C(235 K). The sruface seems to be made up of water ice and hydrated minerals like carbonates and clays. Ceres has a visual magnitude of between +6.9 to +9. When it is at its brightest point, Ceres is nearly bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye. It can be seen with binoculars whenever it is above the horizon on a completely dark night.
The asteroid was discovered on New Years Day in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi. Piazzi was a Sicilian monk and astronomer. He was also the founding director of the Palermo Astronomical Observatory. He discovered the asteroid using the Titius-Bode Law that predicts the position of planets based on a mathematical equation of their distance from the Sun. This law also predicted the position of Uranus and led to the false belief that Ceres was a planet. Today, Ceres falls into the new classification of dwarf planet.
The Dawn space mission is scheduled to visit Ceres in 2015 after stopping by Vesta in 2011. There had been some problems with Dawn’s ion propulsion system, but it was reignited on June 8, 2009. This space mission hopes to be the first to orbit and observe two planetary bodies. This mission will make space exploration history if it is successful and may help Vesta enter the dwarf planet classification.
This dwarf planet is often mentioned along with Mars and Europa as a possible place for extraterrestrial life. The presence of water leads scientist to believe that ejecta from Earth may have impacted the surface and colonized the asteroid.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Dwarf Planets. Listen here, Episode 194: Dwarf Planets.