All Eyes on Asteroid Vesta

By Marc Rayman

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft investigates its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Layered young crater as imaged by NASA's Dawn spacecraft
This image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows a young crater on Vesta that is 9 miles (15 kilometers) in diameter. Layering is visible in the crater walls, as are large boulders that were thrown out in the material ejected from the impact. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA |
› Full image and caption

Dear Dawnscoverers,

On March 29, Vesta spent the 205th anniversary of its discovery by treating Dawn to more spectacular vistas, as it does so often these days. When Heinrich Wilhelm Matthäus Olbers first spotted Vesta, he could hardly have imagined that the power of the noble human spirit for adventure and the insatiable hunger for knowledge would propel a ship from Earth to that mysterious point of light among the stars. And yet today our spacecraft is conducting a detailed and richly rewarding exploration of the world that Olbers found.

Dawn is continuing its intensive low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) campaign, scrutinizing the protoplanet 210 kilometers (130 miles) beneath it with all instruments. The primary objectives of the craft’s work here are to measure the atomic composition and the interior distribution of mass in this geologically complex world. In addition, this low orbit provides the best vantage point for high resolution pictures and visible and infrared spectra to reveal the nature of the minerals on the surface.

Ever since it left its home planet behind in September 2007, the robotic adventurer has pursued its own independent course through the solar system. As Earth and its orbiting retinue (including the moon and many artificial satellites) followed their repetitive annual loop around the sun, Dawn used its ion propulsion system to spiral outward to rendezvous with Vesta in July 2011. When the gigantic asteroid’s gravity gently took hold of the visiting craft, the two began traveling together around the sun, taking the same route Vesta has since long before humans gazed in wonder at the nighttime sky.

As we have discussed before, the speed of an object in orbit, whether around Earth, the sun, the Milky Way (either my cat or the galaxy of the same name) or anything else, decreases as its orbital altitude increases. Farther from the sun than Earth is, and hence bound to it by a weaker gravitational grip, Vesta moves at a more leisurely pace, taking more than 3.6 years per revolution. When Dawn travels to the more remote Ceres, it will orbit the sun even more slowly, eventually matching Ceres’ rate of 4.6 years for each loop.

Just as the hour hand and minute hand of a clock occasionally are near each other and at other times are on opposite sides of the clock face, Earth and Dawn sometimes are relatively close and other times are much farther apart. Now their orbits are taking them to opposite sides of the sun, and the distance is staggering. They have been on opposite sides of the sun twice before (albeit not as far apart as this time), in November 2008 and November 2010. We used both occasions to explain more about the nature of the alignment as well as to contemplate the profundity of such grand adventures.

On April 18, Dawn will attain its greatest separation yet from Earth, nearly 520 million kilometers (323 million miles) or more than 3.47 astronomical units (AU). Well beyond Mars, fewer than a dozen spacecraft have ever operated so far from Earth. Those interested in the history of space exploration (such as your correspondent) will enumerate them, but what should be more rewarding is marveling at the extent of humanity’s reach. At this extraordinary range, Dawn will be nearly 1,400 times farther than the average distance to the moon (and 1,300 times farther than the greatest distance attained by Apollo astronauts 42 years ago). The deep-space ship will be well over one million times farther from Earth than the International Space Station and Tiangong-1.

Vesta does not orbit the sun in the same plane that Earth does. Indeed, a significant part of the challenge in matching Dawn’s orbit to Vesta’s was tipping the plane of its orbit from Earth’s, where it began its journey, to Vesta’s, where it is now. As a result, when they are on opposite sides of the sun this time, Dawn will not appear to go directly behind the sun but rather will pass a little south of it. In addition, because the orbits are not perfectly circular, the greatest separation does not quite coincide with the time that Dawn and the sun appear to be most closely aligned. The angular separation will be at its minimum of less than five degrees (about 10 times the angular size of the sun itself) on April 9, but the sun and Dawn appear to be within ten degrees of each other from March 23 until April 27. For our human readers, that small angle is comparable to the width of your palm at arm’s length, providing a handy way to find the approximate position of the spacecraft in the sky. Earth’s robotic ambassador to the cosmos began east of the salient celestial signpost and progresses slowly to the west over the course of those five weeks. Readers are encouraged to step outside and join your correspondent in raising a saluting hand to the sun, Dawn, and what we jointly accomplish in our efforts to gain a perspective on our place in the universe.

For those awestruck observers who lack the requisite superhuman visual acuity to discern the faraway spacecraft amidst the dazzling light of the sun, this alignment provides a convenient occasion to reflect once again upon missions deep into space. Formed at the dawn of the solar system, Vesta, arguably the smallest of the terrestrial planets, has waited mostly in patient inconspicuousness for a visit from the largest terrestrial planet. For the entire history of life on Earth, the inhabitants remained confined to the world on which they have lived. Yet finally, one of the millions upon millions of species, inspired by the splendor of the universe, applied its extraordinary talents and collective knowledge to overcome the limitations of planetary life and strove to venture outward. Dawn is the product of creatures fortunate enough to be able to combine their powerful curiosity about the workings of the cosmos with their impressive abilities to explore, investigate and ultimately understand. While its builders remain in the vicinity of the planet upon which they evolved, their emissary now is passing on the far side of the sun! This is the same sun that is more than 100 times the diameter of Earth and a third of a million times its mass. This is the same sun that has been the unchallenged master of our solar system for more than 4.5 billion years. This is the same sun that has shone down on Earth throughout that time and has been the ultimate source of so much of the heat, light and other energy upon which the planet’s residents have been so dependent. This is the same sun that has so influenced human expression in art, literature, mythology and religion for uncounted millennia. This is the same sun that has motivated scientific studies for centuries. This is the same sun that is our signpost in the Milky Way galaxy. And humans have a spacecraft on the far side of it. We may be humbled by our own insignificance in the universe, yet we still undertake the most valiant adventures in our attempts to comprehend its majesty.

Dawn is 210 kilometers (130 miles) from Vesta. It is also 3.45 AU (516 million kilometers or 321 million miles) from Earth, or 1,290 times as far as the moon and 3.45 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 57 minutes to make the round trip.

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