A U.S. space probe slipped into orbit around Ceres, a miniature planet beyond Mars believed to be left over from the formation of the solar system, NASA said on Friday.
Launched in 2007, the Dawn spacecraft made a 14-month tour of the asteroid Vesta before steering itself toward Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Dawn shifted its path to allow itself to be captured by Ceres’ gravity at 7:39 a.m. EST, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet.
"We feel exhilarated,” lead researcher Chris Russell at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement after Dawn radioed back to Earth.
NASA's New Horizons probe is scheduled to fly by another dwarf planet, Pluto, in the far reaches of the solar system later this year. Like Ceres, Pluto was once considered a full-fledged planet, but was reclassified after the discovery of similar bodies.
Dawn will spend about a month repositioning itself from its initial orbit about 38,000 miles (61,000 km) above Ceres to the first survey altitude of 2,730 miles (4,400 km).
By the time the mission ends in June 2016, Dawn will have flown as low as 230 miles (375 km) above the surface.