Dawn Ascends Over 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.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at asteroid Vesta
This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn’s framing cameras. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech |
› Full image and caption

Dear Dawnright Spectacular Readers,

Dawn is wrapping up a spectacularly rewarding phase of its mission of exploration. Since descending to its low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) in December, the stalwart probe has circled Vesta about 800 times and collected a truly outstanding trove of precious observations of the protoplanet. Having far exceeded the plans, expectations, and even hopes for what it would accomplish when LAMO began, the ambitious explorer is now ready to begin its ascent. On May 1, atop its familiar blue-green pillar of xenon ions, the craft will embark upon the six-week spiral to its second high-altitude mapping orbit.

When the intricate plans for Dawn’s one-year orbital residence at Vesta were developed, LAMO was to be 70 days, longer than any other phase. Because of the many daunting challenges of exploring an uncharted, alien world in the forbidding depths of the asteroid belt so far from home, mission planners could not be confident of staying on a rigid schedule, and yet they wanted to make the most of the precious time at the giant asteroid. They set aside 40 days (with no committed activities) to use as needed in overcoming problems during the unique approach and entry into orbit as well as the intensive observation campaigns in survey orbit and the first high-altitude mapping orbit plus the complex spiral flights from each science orbit to the next. To no one’s surprise, unexpected problems did indeed arise on occasion, and yet in every case, the dedicated professionalism and expertise of the team (occasionally augmented with cortisol, caffeine, and carbohydrates) allowed the expedition to remain on track without needing to draw on that reserve. To everyone’s surprise and great delight, by the beginning of LAMO on December 12, the entirety of the 40 days remained available. Therefore, all of it was used to extend the time the spacecraft would spend at low altitude studying the fascinating world beneath it.

Dawn’s mission at Vesta, exciting and successful though it is, is not the craft’s sole objective. Thanks to the extraordinary capability of its ion propulsion system, this is the first vessel ever planned to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations. After it completes its scrutiny of the behemoth it now orbits, the second most massive resident of the main asteroid belt, Dawn will set sail for dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Since 2009, the interplanetary itinerary has included breaking out of Vesta orbit in July 2012 in order to arrive at Ceres on schedule in February 2015. Taking advantage of additional information they have gained on the spacecraft’s generation and consumption of electrical power, the performance of the ion propulsion system, and other technical issues, engineers have refined their analyses for how long the journey through the asteroid belt to Ceres will take. Their latest assessment is that they can shave 40 days off the previous plan, once again demonstrating the valuable flexibility of ion propulsion, and that translates into being able to stay that much longer at the current celestial residence. (This extension is different from the 40 days described above, because that was designed to ensure Dawn could complete its studies and still leave on schedule in July. For this new extension, the departure date is being changed.) Even though a larger operations team is required at Vesta than during the cruise to Ceres, the Dawn project has the wherewithal to cover the cost. Because operations at Vesta have been so smooth, no new funds from NASA are needed; rather, the project can use the money it had held in reserve in case of problems. In this new schedule, Dawn will gently free itself of Vesta’s gravitational hold on August 26.

Most of the bonus time has been devoted to extending LAMO by a month, allowing the already richly productive investigations there to be even better. (Future logs will describe how the rest of the additional time at Vesta will be spent.) With all sensors fully operational, the robotic explorer has been making the best possible use of its precious time at Vesta, revealing more and more thrilling details of an exotic world deep in the asteroid belt.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal

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