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.
Dawn concludes 2011 more than 40 thousand times nearer to Vesta than it began the year. Now at its lowest altitude of the mission, the bold adventurer is conducting its most detailed exploration of this alien world and continuing to make thrilling new discoveries.
Circling the protoplanet 210 kilometers (130 miles) beneath it every 4 hours, 21 minutes on average, Dawn is closer to the surface than the vast majority of Earth-orbiting satellites are to that planet. There are two primary scientific objectives of this low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). With its gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND), the probe is measuring the faint emanations of these subatomic particles from Vesta. Some are the by-products of the bombardment by cosmic rays, radiation that pervades space, and others are emitted through the decay of radioactive elements. Vesta does not glow brightly when observed in nuclear particles, so GRaND needs to measure the radiation for weeks at this low altitude. This is analogous to using a long exposure with a camera to photograph a dimly lit subject. If GRaND only detected the radiation, it would be as if it took a black and white picture, but this sophisticated instrument does more. It measures the energy of each particle, just as a camera can measure the color of light. The energies reveal the identities of the elements that constitute the uppermost meter (yard) of the surface. Dawn devotes most of its time now flying over Vesta to collecting the glimmer of radiation. It requires a long time, but this spacecraft has demonstrated tremendous patience in its use of the gentle but efficient ion propulsion system that made the mission possible, so it can be patient in making these measurements.
The second motivation for diving down so low is to be close enough that Vesta’s interior variations in density affect the spacecraft’s orbit discernibly. We have seen before that the distribution of mass inside the protoplanet reveals itself through the changing strength of its gravitational tug on Dawn. Exquisitely sensitive measurements of the ship’s course can be translated into a three-dimensional map of the mass. In the plans discussed for LAMO one year ago, the delicate tracking of the spacecraft required pointing the main antenna to Earth. That provides a radio signal strong enough to achieve the required accuracy. Since then, navigators have determined that the radio signal received from one of the craft’s auxiliary antennas, although far weaker, is sufficient. The main antenna broadcasts a tight beam, whereas the others emit over a much larger angle, exchanging signal strength for flexibility in pointing.
This allows an extremely valuable improvement. The spacecraft cannot aim GRaND at the surface and the main antenna at Earth concurrently, because both are mounted rigidly, just as you cannot simultaneously point the front of your car north and the back east. Therefore, in the original plan, gravity measurements and GRaND measurements were mutually exclusive. Now, as Dawn turns throughout its orbit to keep Vesta in GRaND’s sights, it can transmit a weak radio signal that is just perceptible at Earth. This enables an even greater science return for the time in LAMO.
Unlike the science camera and the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR), GRaND and gravity observations do not depend on the sun’s illumination of the surface. Even as it orbits over a dark, cold, silent landscape, Dawn is fully capable of continuing to build its maps of elements and the interior structure.
The signal from the auxiliary antenna is just sufficient for the measurement of the spacecraft’s motion, but it is not strong enough to carry data as well. So the spacecraft is still programmed to point its main antenna to Earth three times each week, allowing the precious GRaND observations that have been stored in computer memory to be transmitted. As always, the myriad measurements of temperatures, voltages, currents, pressures, and other parameters that engineers use to ensure the health of the ship are returned during these communications sessions as well.
Although the pictures of Vesta from survey orbit and the high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO) have exceeded scientists’ expectations, not only in quality and quantity but also in the truly fascinating content, as enthusiastic explorers, the Dawn team could not pass up the opportunity for more. When GRaND is pointed at the surface, the camera is too, and already well over one thousand images have been returned, revealing detail three times finer than the spectacular images from HAMO. For readers who cannot go to Vesta on their own, go here for a selection of the best views, each showing surprising and captivating alien landscapes.