Dawn Longs for Vesta’s Gravitational Pull
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is less than two months away from getting into orbit around its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta. Each month, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares an update on the mission’s progress.
Dear Dependawnble Readers,
Dawn remains healthy and on course as it continues to approach Vesta. Thrusting with its ion propulsion system, as it has for most of its interplanetary journey so far, the spacecraft is gradually matching its solar orbit to that of the protoplanet just ahead.
As these two residents of the asteroid belt, one very new and one quite ancient, travel around the sun, they draw ever closer. Vesta follows its own familiar path, repeating it over and over, just as Earth and many other solar system bodies do. Dawn has been taking a spiral route, climbing away from the sun atop a blue-green pillar of xenon ions. With an accumulated total in excess of two and a half years of ion thrusting, providing an effective change in velocity of more than 6.5 kilometers per second (14,500 mph), the probe is close to the end of the first leg of its interplanetary trek. On July 16, Vesta’s gravity will capture the ship as it smoothly transitions from spiraling around the sun to spiraling around Vesta, aiming for survey orbit in August. For several reasons, the date for the beginning of the intensive observations there has not yet been set exactly.
Astronomers have estimated Vesta’s mass, principally by measuring how it occasionally perturbs the orbits of some of its neighbors in the asteroid belt and even the orbit of Mars, but this method yields only an approximate value. Because the mass is not well known, there is some uncertainty in the precise time that Dawn will become gravitationally bound to the colossal asteroid. As we have seen before, entry into orbit is quite unlike the highly suspenseful and stressful event of missions that rely on conventional chemical propulsion. Dawn simply will be thrusting, just as it has for 70 percent of its time in space. Orbit entry will be much like a typical day of quiet cruise. That Vesta will take hold at some point will matter only to the many Dawnophiles throughout the cosmos following the mission. The ship will continue to sail along a gently curving arc to survey orbit.