As the Asteroid Turns …
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.
Following the previous log, the spacecraft continued using its ion propulsion system to spiral around Vesta, gradually descending to its present altitude of 2700 kilometers (1700 miles). Its flight plan included more observations of Vesta, each one producing incredible views more exciting than the last. Every image revealed new and exotic landscapes. Vesta is unlike any other place humankind’s robotic ambassadors have visited. To continue to share in the thrill of discovery, remember to visit here to see a new image every day during survey orbit. Your correspondent, writing with atypical brevity, also will continue to provide progress reports here at least once a week.
As the ship sailed ever closer to the massive protoplanet during the approach phase, the gravitational attraction grew stronger. We saw in previous logs that astronomers had estimated Vesta’s mass by observing the effect of the 530-kilometer (330-mile) diameter behemoth on distant bodies, including smaller residents of the asteroid belt and even Mars. Now that navigators can detect its pull on nearby Dawn, they are improving that value. Before the explorer’s arrival, Vesta’s mass was calculated to be about 262 billion billion kilograms (289 million billion tons). Now it is measured to be about 259 billion billion kilograms (286 million billion tons), well within the previous margin of error. It is impressive how accurately astronomers had been able to determine the heft of what had appeared as little more than a point of light among the myriad stars. Nevertheless, even this small change of 1.2 percent is important for planning the rest of Dawn’s mission.