The Dawn mission is a journey in both space and time, traveling to the two oldest and most massive space rocks in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter: Vesta and Ceres. Their surfaces are believed to contain a snapshot of the conditions present in the solar system's first 10 million years, allowing Dawn to investigate both the origin and the current state of the solar system.

Vesta is a rocky body, while Ceres is believed to contain large quantities of ice. The profound differences in the geology of these two minor planets that formed and evolved in close proximity to each other form a bridge from the rocky bodies of the inner solar system to the icy bodies of the outer solar system. By observing asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres with the same set of instruments, Dawn has the unique ability to compare and contrast them and answer questions about the formation and evolution of the early solar system.