Space

September 4, 2012

Dawn spacecraft prepares for trek toward dwarf planet

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is on track to become the first probe to orbit and study two distant destinations to help scientists answer questions about the formation of our solar system.

The spacecraft is scheduled to leave the giant asteroid Vesta Sept. 5 to start its 2 1/2-year journey to the dwarf planet Ceres.

Dawn began its 3-billion-mile odyssey to explore the two most massive objects in the main asteroid belt in 2007. Dawn arrived at Vesta in July 2011 and will reach Ceres in early 2015. These two members of the asteroid belt have been witness to much of our solar system’s history.

The valuable evidence Dawn gathered from examining the first of these cosmic fossils up close improved our understanding of asteroids and provided context for a future human mission to visit an asteroid.

The spacecraft will spiral away from Vesta as gently as it arrived, using a special, hyper-efficient system called ion propulsion. The ion propulsion system uses electricity to ionize xenon to generate thrust. The 12-inch-wide ion thrusters provide less power than conventional engines but can maintain thrust for months at a time.

“Thrust is engaged and we now are climbing away from Vesta atop a blue-green pillar of xenon ions,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We are feeling somewhat wistful about concluding a fantastically productive and exciting exploration of Vesta, but now we have our sights set on dwarf planet Ceres.”

Dawn provided close-up views of Vesta and unprecedented detail about the giant asteroid. Findings revealed that the asteroid had completely melted in the past, forming a layered body with an iron core. The spacecraft also revealed the collisions Vesta suffered in its southern hemisphere. The asteroid survived two colossal impacts in the last 2 billion years. Without Dawn, scientists would not have known about the dramatic troughs sculpted around Vesta, which are ripples from the two south polar impacts.

“We went to Vesta to fill in the blanks of our knowledge about the early history of our solar system,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Dawn has filled in those pages and more, revealing to us how special Vesta is as a survivor from the earliest days of the solar system. We now can say with certainty that Vesta resembles a small planet more closely than a typical asteroid.”

JPL manages the mission to Vesta and Ceres for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

UCLA is responsible for the overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission’s team.

 




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 

NASA Hubble instruments highlight new National Air and Space Museum exhibit

Two instruments that played critical roles in discoveries made by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope now are on display in an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. “Repairing Hubble” recognizes the 24th anniversary of Hubble’s launch into space aboard space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. The exhibit features Hubble’s Corrective...
 
 
Image courtesy of NASA GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio

NASA satellites show drought may take toll on Congo rainforest

Image courtesy of NASA GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio In the Congo rainforest, a browning trend (brown) dominates smaller areas that show a greening trend (green) during April, May and June each year from 2000 to 2012. A ...
 
 

Second series of CASIS-sponsored research payloads launch to ISS

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space is proud to announce several sponsored research payloads have launched to the International Space Station onboard the Space Exploration Technology Corporation’s Dragon cargo capsule. This marks the second series of investigations headed to the station that are sponsored by CASIS, the nonprofit responsible for managing research...
 

 

NASA selects commercial crew program manager

NASA has selected Kathy Lueders as program manager for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. Lueders, who has served as acting program manager since October 2013, will help keep the nation’s space program on course to launch astronauts from American soil by 2017 aboard spacecraft built by American companies. “This is a particularly critical time for...
 
 
NASA image by Kathy Reilly

NASA innovative advanced concept program seeks phase II proposals

NASA image by Kathy Reilly This artist’s concept conveys elements of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program – creative and forward-thinking approaches to aerospace architecture, mission, and system concep...
 
 
nasa-cassini

NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of new Saturn moon

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet’s known moons. Images taken w...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>