Taken In by the Giant Asteroid Vesta

By Marc Rayman

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has just arrived at its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta. Each month, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares an update on the mission’s progress.

Latest Image of Vesta captured by Dawn on July 17, 2011
This is the first image obtained by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft after successfully entering orbit around Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA › See more images

Dear Residawnts of Vesta,

Dawn has arrived!!

After covering 2.8 billion kilometers (1.7 billion miles) on its own, after traveling for nearly four years through the lonely emptiness of interplanetary space, after being bound by the gravity only of the sun, Dawn is finally in orbit around Vesta. To get here, it gently propelled itself with its ion propulsion system for 70% of its journey, or more than 2.6 years. Deep in the asteroid belt, far from its planet of origin, well beyond Mars (which it visited ever so briefly more than two years ago), where no spacecraft has ever been before, Dawn now resides with a giant.

While more detailed navigational analyses will be required to determine the exact time, around 10 p.m. PDT on July 15, as the spacecraft performed its familiar routine of ion thrusting, its orbit around the sun finally was so close to that of Vesta that the protoplanet’s gravity could take hold of it. Dawn was only about 16,000 kilometers (9,900 miles) above the ancient, scarred surface of the alien world. Traveling together around the sun at more than 20.5 kilometers per second (46,000 mph), their orbits were so similar that the cosmic craft was closing in at the leisurely speed of only 27 meters per second (60 mph). The last time it approached a nearby destination so slowly was in April 2007. At that time, it used more conventional propulsion technology: it rode on a truck from Washington, DC to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

That may be too many numbers for some readers (and too few for our good friends the Numerivores). But it all reduces to one cool fact: humankind has succeeded in delivering an interplanetary spaceship to orbit around one of the largest objects in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Indeed, Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit any object in the main belt.

The probe slipped gently into orbit with the same grace it has displayed during its nearly 1000 days of ion thrusting through the solar system. Although the unusual nature of the spiral capture has been explained in detail before, there is one important difference (in addition to some minor ones) from previous descriptions: now it is history.

Dawn has orbited two other bodies. Shortly after it left Cape Canaveral atop a fiery rocket, the spacecraft spent about 45 minutes in Earth orbit, waiting for the proper orbital alignment to begin its ambitious deep-space voyage. Once the rocket gave it enough energy to leave the planet behind, Dawn orbited the sun as surely as Earth and the other planets do, although, of course, it spent most of its time reshaping that orbit. Now it is orbiting Vesta, as surely as the moon orbits Earth.

Entering orbit around the protoplanet is essential to Dawn’s plans for comprehensive studies of this exotic world, but simply being in orbit is not adequate. The craft did not miss a beat as it flew into Vesta’s grasp; it is spiraling around its new master as it aims for its first science orbit at an altitude of 2700 kilometers (1700 miles). The intensive scrutiny of Vesta from survey orbit will begin in the second week of August.

It’s a noteworthy coincidence that Earth and Vesta will happen to be very well aligned then. As they follow their independent orbits around the sun, occasionally their paths bring them relatively near to each other. So just as Dawn begins looking closely at Vesta, so too can residents of Earth. The protoplanet is the brightest object in the asteroid belt, and the only one ever visible to unaided terrestrial eyes, although binoculars or a telescope make it much easier to spot, especially under skies that are brightened by the lights of cities.

Even when their separation is at its minimum, Earth and Vesta will come only to within about 1.23 AU (184 million kilometers or 114 million miles) of each other. While their closest approach is late at night on July 31, the geometry changes slowly enough that there are good viewing opportunities well before and after. Go here for guidance on how to find Vesta in the constellation Capricornus. And if you are fortunate enough to glimpse that distant point of light, let your imagination add to the scene the recent immigrant from Earth, representing you and the rest of humankind on its mission of exploration. There, far from its erstwhile home and the beings who urge it on, this ambitious adventurer is translating that dot of light among the myriad stars into an exciting and fascinating account of the dawn of the solar system.

Dawn has spent most of its time since the last log thrusting as usual. The thrusting even at the time it was captured by Vesta’s gravity was no different. We have seen before that, in stark contrast to the tension when other missions enter orbit, with ion propulsion, the process is very calm indeed. For that matter, since May 2010, Dawn has thrust with its radio transmitter turned off, devoting that precious power to accelerating xenon ions rather than generating radio waves. The ship continued in silence when it went into orbit on Friday night. Mission control was empty, there being no need to monitor the probe’s operation. In fact, your correspondent was dancing, confident that the pas de deux being performed 188 million kilometers (117 million miles) away would be executed with graceful beauty and flawless precision.

Confirmation that Dawn was in orbit came shortly before 11:30 pm PDT on July 16 (more than 24 hours after it glided into orbit) when its radio signals were received at the Deep Space Network. Following its preprogrammed sequence of instructions, the spacecraft acquired more images of Vesta earlier in the evening and then initiated communications with Earth right on schedule. Observing that it was in good health and continuing to perform all of its functions demonstrated that it had achieved orbit. The choreography was beautiful!

Reliable as Dawn is, it did experience an unexpected interruption in thrust recently. On June 27, a cosmic ray, a high energy subatomic particle traveling through space, apparently managed to strike an electrical component on the spacecraft in an especially effective way. The component is used by the ion propulsion system computer controller to operate valves in the complex plumbing that transports xenon from the main tank to the operating thruster. The propellant needs to be delivered at just the right rate for optimal performance. When the cosmic ray deposited its energy in that device, it deprived the circuit of the ability to send signals to the valves, even when directed to do so by the computer. (A cosmic ray is the most likely culprit, but other explanations for the circuit’s inaction are still being considered.) As a result, when it was time to open valves to feed a little more xenon into the thruster, the controller was unable to comply. The computer detected the problem, followed the appropriate procedure for terminating thrust, and alerted the main spacecraft computer. That computer correctly responded by canceling other planned activities and commanding the ship into one of its safe modes. In this case, because all other systems were healthy, it was not necessary to invoke the normal safe mode. Rather, the robot properly chose to make fewer reconfigurations. It pointed its main antenna to Earth and transmitted its status, awaiting a response from controllers.

The Deep Space Network began a routine communications session early on June 28, and the Dawn team immediately understood the spacecraft condition. Before the end of the day, they had restored it to its normal flight mode and made preparations to activate the other controller.

Dawn had been using controller #1 and ion thruster #3 since December. With the controller unable to operate valves, engineers instructed the ship to switch to controller #2, which was in command for most of the thrusting in 2010. Its ability to operate the valves was not compromised. That unit can be used with thruster #2 and #3, but it was faster to formulate commands to use thruster #2, so in the interest of time, that was the choice.

Later this summer, engineers will conduct tests with controller #1 to assess its health and determine whether its valve signals can be restored. That controller operates thruster #1 and #3. Mission planners had long ago decided not to use venerable #1 for the rest of the mission, as it requires slightly more power than its siblings, so whether controller #1 will be fully functional or not, Dawn’s extraterrestrial expedition can be completed as planned with controller #2.

Once the spacecraft had deviated from its intended flight plan by not thrusting, navigators had to devise a new plan to fly to Vesta. To ensure there would be enough time to make up for the lost thrust, they removed one of the navigation imaging sessions (and the communications period that followed it) from the schedule and another routine communications session. Of course, as experienced interplanetary explorers, Dawn’s mission team had always recognized that glitches could interfere with any activity, so more imaging and more communications had been planned than truly were required. Doing without a few to allow time for some compensatory thrusting was easily accommodated.

In order to resume thrusting quickly, controllers chose not to optimize the plan but rather simply to devise a plan that was adequate. The consequence was that they ended up giving Dawn more time to thrust than it really even needed. The entire episode beginning with the balky controller cost 1.2 days of thrust, and the revised plan added 1.8 days of thrust at other times. As a result, the insertion into orbit shifted 15 hours earlier. Such flexibility is another of the many differences between missions that use ion propulsion and those that use conventional propulsion.

Before restarting its powered flight, however, the team was eager to allow Dawn to conduct its first planned observation of Vesta throughout one full rotation of the protoplanet on its axis, a Vestian day of 5 hours 20 minutes. (This and other activities during the approach phase were described last year.) Thanks to the fleet and flawless work of the team, that was carried out on schedule on June 29-30, and all the planned images were acquired. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) also peered at Vesta to provide additional information for use in setting instrument parameters for the science observations in survey orbit. After it acquired two excellent sets of data, its internal computer detected an unexpected condition, so it did not complete the rest of its activities. As the camera’s images were beaming back to Earth on June 30, engineers verified that VIR was in good condition, and they will study its telemetry further as they continue to plan for its important measurements of the minerals that compose Vesta’s surface.

In the original itinerary, ion thrusting would recommence after the communications session on June 30. And that is exactly what occurred, even with the unplanned thrusting hiatus in the preceding days. Dawn continued closing in on Vesta with the gentle pressure of thruster #2, just as it still is today.

As a reminder, an easy way you can have the same otherworldly view of Vesta as Dawn is to visit here. These logs generally will not provide interpretations of the rich bounty of images (but they are fantastic, aren’t they?) or other fascinating measurements. As the data are assessed by Dawn’s team of planetary scientists from four countries, news of the results will be distributed by NASA’s and JPL’s news organizations. And for more frequent updates on the progress of the mission than are provided in these logs, readers may want to go here, where your correspondent abandons his idiolect to provide extremely brief reports much more often (with much less, ahem, color).

On July 9-10, the spacecraft’s agenda included another pause in thrusting. This time, in addition to acquiring its second set of images while Vesta completed a full rotation, Dawn photographed the space around Vesta in search of moons. Remote observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories on Earth had not found any, but that did not rule out their presence. As no moons had been detected yet, however, they would have to be small and therefore faint. In order to try to discover whether there might be any, the camera used different exposures, some as long as 4.5 minutes. (For photographers, the effective shutter speed for the pictures of Vesta that reveal its surface features is 1/125 of a second.) The spacecraft pointed its camera around Vesta and acquired 72 images. Three hours later, it imaged the same locations, and then another nine hours after that, it repeated the sequence once again. The pictures are being scrutinized for points of light that shift position from one set of images to another, betraying the orbital motion of natural satellites of Vesta.

Although those results are not yet available, we now know with certainty that Vesta does have a moon. Its name is Dawn!

Dawn is 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) from Vesta, closer than many terrestrial satellites are to Earth. It is also 1.25 AU (187 million kilometers or 116 million miles) from Earth, or 470 times as far as the moon and 1.23 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 21 minutes to make the round trip.

› Read Marc Rayman’s previous Dawn Journals

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    3 Responses to “Taken In by the Giant Asteroid Vesta”

  1. Taken In by the Giant Asteroid Vesta | JPL Blog | Hometown Pasadena | Says:
    July 18th, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    [...] Read on Blog’s site » [...]

  2. Asteroid Vesta Turbulent Past | Illinois SkyWatch Says:
    July 19th, 2011 at 6:15 am

    [...] out the JPL Blog for more cool [...]

  3. Blog - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory » Blog Archive » As the Asteroid Turns … Says:
    August 19th, 2011 at 7:40 am

    [...] the previous log, the spacecraft continued using its ion propulsion system to spiral around Vesta, gradually [...]

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