Posts Tagged ‘Dawn’

So Close, Yet So Far Away: Dawn’s Trajectory Explained

Monday, March 31st, 2014

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft
Artist’s concept depicting the Dawn spacecraft thrusting with its ion propulsion system as it travels from Vesta (lower right) to Ceres (upper left). The galaxies in the background are part of the Virgo supercluster. Dawn, Vesta and Ceres are currently in the constellation Virgo from the perspective of viewers on Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL
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Dear Correspondawnts,

Powering its way through deep space, Dawn draws ever closer to dwarf planet Ceres. To reach its destination, the interplanetary spaceship gently reshapes its path around the sun with its extraordinary ion propulsion system. In about a year, the spacecraft will gracefully slip into orbit so it can begin to unveil the nature of the mysterious world of rock and ice, an intriguing protoplanetary remnant from the dawn of the solar system.

Even as Dawn ascends the solar system hill, climbing farther and farther from the sun, penetrating deeper into the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, its distance to Earth is shrinking. This behavior may be perplexing for readers with a geocentric bias, but to understand it, we can take a broader perspective.

The sun is the conductor of the solar system symphony. Its gravity dictates the movements of everything that orbits it: Earth as well as the other planets, Vesta, Ceres, and myriad smaller objects, including asteroids and Dawn. (Actually, the gravity of every single body affects how all of the others move, but with more than 99 percent of the entire solar system’s mass concentrated in the gargantuan sun, it dominates the gravitational landscape.)

Whether it is for a planet or Dawn orbiting the sun, a spacecraft or moon orbiting a planet, the sun or other stars orbiting the Milky Way (the Milky Way galaxy, that is, not your correspondent’s cat Milky Way), or the Milky Way galaxy orbiting the Virgo supercluster of galaxies (home to an appreciable fraction of our readership), any orbit is the perfect balance between the inward tug of gravity and the inexorable tendency of objects to travel in a straight line. If you attach a weight to a string and swing it around in a circle, the force you use to pull on the string mimics the gravitational force the sun exerts on the bodies that orbit it. The effort you expend in keeping the weight circling serves constantly to redirect its course, forcing it to curve; if you release the string, the weight’s natural motion would take it away in a straight line (we are ignoring here the effect of Earth’s gravity on the weight).

The force of gravity dwindles as the distance increases, so the sun pulls harder on a nearby body than on a farther one. Therefore, to remain in orbit, to balance the relentless gravitational lure, the closer object must travel at higher speed, resisting the stronger attraction. The same effect applies at Earth. Satellites that orbit very close (including, for example, the International Space Station, 250 miles, or 400 kilometers, above the surface) must streak around the planet at about 17,000 mph (7.6 kilometers per second) to avoid being drawn down. The moon, orbiting almost a thousand times farther above, needs only to travel at less than 2300 mph (about 1.0 kilometers per second) to balance Earth’s weaker hold at its remote location.

For that reason, Mercury zips around the sun faster than any of the other planets. Mars travels more slowly than Earth, and the still more distant residents of the asteroid belt, whether natural (all of them but one) or a product of human ingenuity (one: Dawn), proceed at an even more leisurely pace. As Earth makes its relatively rapid annual trip around the sun, the distance to the spacecraft that left it behind in 2007 alternately shrinks and grows.

We can visualize this with one of the popular models of clocks available in the Dawn gift shop on your planet, in which the hour hand is longer than the minute hand. Imagine the sun as being at the center of the clock. The tip of the short minute hand represents Earth, and the end of the hour hand represents Dawn. Some of the time (such as between noon and shortly after 12:30), the distance between the ends of the hands increases. Then the situation reverses as the faster minute hand begins moving closer and closer to the hour hand as the time approaches about 1:05.

The Dawn spacecraft's trajectory
This graphic shows the Dawn spacecraft’s interplanetary trajectory from launch through its arrival at Ceres next year. The positions of the spacecraft and Earth are shown on April 10, 2014, when their independent orbits bring them relatively close together. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Earth and Dawn are exhibiting the same repetitive behavior. Of course, their relative motion is more complicated than that of the clock hands, because Dawn’s ion thrusting is constantly changing its solar orbit (and so the distance and speed at which it loops around the sun), but the principle is the same. They have been drawing closer since August 2013. Earth, coming from behind, is now about to pass Dawn and move ahead. The stalwart probe will not even take note however, as its sights remain firmly set on an unexplored alien world.

On April 10, the separation will be 1.56 AU (1.56 times the average distance between Earth and the sun, which means 145 million miles, or 233 million kilometers), an almost inconceivably large distance (well in excess of half a million times farther than the International Space Station, which orbits Earth, not the sun) but less than it has been since September 2011. (The skeptical reader may verify this by reviewing the concluding paragraph of each log in the intervening months.) Enjoy the upcoming propinquity while you can! As the ship sails outward from the sun toward Ceres, it will never again be this close to its planet of origin. The next time Earth, taking an inside track, overtakes it, in July 2015 (by which time Dawn will be orbiting Ceres), they will only come within 1.94 AU (180 million miles, or 290 million kilometers) of each other.

By the way, Vesta, the endlessly fascinating protoplanet Dawn unveiled in 2011-2012, will be at its smallest separation from Earth of 1.23 AU (114 million miles, or 183 million km) on April 18. Ceres, still awaiting a visitor from Earth, despite having first been glimpsed from there in 1801, will attain its minimum distance on April 15, when it will be 1.64 AU (153 million miles, or 246 million km) away. It should not be a surprise that Dawn’s distance is intermediate; it is between them as it journeys from one to the other.

Finder chart showing the locations of Vesta and Ceres
This finder chart can help you locate Vesta and Ceres (and even Dawn, although it is too small to see) in the constellation Virgo. Click it for a larger version. Image credit: Sky & Telescope Magazine
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Not only is each one nearly at its shortest geocentric range, but from Earth’s point of view, they all appear to be near each other in the constellation Virgo. In fact, they also look close to Mars, so you can locate these exotic worlds (and even the undetectably small spacecraft) in the evening sky by using the salient red planet as a signpost. In June, the coincidental celestial alignment will make Vesta and Ceres appear to be separated by only one third the diameter of the full Moon, although these behemoths of the asteroid belt will be 0.57 AU (52 million miles, or 85 million kilometers) from each other.

We mentioned above that by constantly modifying its orbit under the persistent pressure of its ion engine, Dawn complicates the simple clock-like behavior of its motion relative to Earth. On Halloween 2012, we were treated to the startling fact that to rendezvous with Ceres, at a greater distance from the sun, Dawn had to come in toward the sun for a portion of its journey; quite a trick! In that memorable log (which is here, for those readers who didn’t find every detail to be so memorable), we observed that it would not be until May 2014 that Dawn would be as far from the sun as it was on Nov. 1, 2012. Sure enough, having faithfully performed all of the complex and intricate choreography since then, it will fly to more than 2.57 AU from the solar system’s star in May, and it will continue heading outward.

With the sun behind it and without regard to where Earth or most other residents of the solar system are in their orbits, Dawn rises to ever greater heights on its extraordinary expedition. Distant though it is, the celestial ambassador is propelled by the burning passion for knowledge, the powerful yearning to reach beyond the horizon, and the noble spirit of adventure of the inhabitants of faraway Earth. The journey ahead presents many unknowns, promising both great challenges and great rewards. That, after all, is the reason for undertaking it, for such voyages enrich the lives of all who share in the grand quest to understand more about the cosmos and our humble place in it.

Dawn is 11 million miles (18 million kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 1.57 AU (146 million miles, or 235 million kilometers) from Earth, or 625 times as far as the moon and 1.57 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 26 minutes to make the round trip.

› Read more from Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


A Preview of Upcoming Attractions: Dawn Meets Ceres

Friday, February 28th, 2014

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at the protoplanet Ceres
This artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows the craft orbiting high above Ceres, where the craft will arrive in early 2015 to begin science investigations. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Dear Ardawnt Readers,

Continuing its daring mission to explore some of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system, Dawn remains on course and on schedule for its rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres next year. Silently and patiently streaking through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the ardent adventurer is gradually reshaping its orbit around the Sun with its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system. Vesta, the giant protoplanet it unveiled during its spectacular expedition there in 2011-2012, grows ever more distant.

In December, and January, we saw Dawn’s plans for the “approach phase” to Ceres and how it will slip gracefully into orbit under the gentle control of its ion engine. Entering orbit, gratifying and historic though it will be, is only a means to an end. The reason for orbiting its destinations is to have all the time needed to use its suite of sophisticated sensors to scrutinize these alien worlds.

Illustration of Dawn's approach phase and RC3 orbit
Following its gravitational capture by Ceres during the approach phase, Dawn will continue to use its ion propulsion system to spiral to the RC3 orbit at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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As at Vesta, Dawn will take advantage of the extraordinary capability of its ion propulsion system to maneuver extensively in orbit at Ceres. During the course of its long mission there, it will fly to four successively lower orbital altitudes, each chosen to optimize certain investigations. (The probe occupied six different orbits at Vesta, where two of them followed the lowest altitude. As the spacecraft will not leave Ceres, there is no value in ascending from its fourth and lowest orbit.) All of the plans for exploring Ceres have been developed to discover as much as possible about this mysterious dwarf planet while husbanding the precious hydrazine propellant, ensuring that Dawn will complete its ambitious mission there regardless of the health of its reaction wheels.

All of its orbits at Ceres will be circular and polar, meaning the spacecraft will pass over the north pole and the south pole, so all latitudes will come within view. Thanks to Ceres’s own rotation, all longitudes will be presented to the orbiting observer. To visualize this, think of (or even look at) a common globe of Earth. A ring encircling it represents Dawn’s orbital path. If the ring is only over the equator, the spacecraft cannot attain good views of the high northern and southern latitudes. If, instead, the ring goes over both poles, then the combined motion of the globe spinning on its axis and the craft moving along the ring provides an opportunity for complete coverage.

Dawn will orbit in the same direction it did at Vesta, traveling from north to south over the side illuminated by the distant Sun. After flying over the south pole, it will head north, the surface directly beneath it in the dark of night. When it travels over the north pole, the terrain below will come into sunlight and the ship will sail south again.

Dawn’s first orbital phase is distinguished not only by providing the first opportunity to conduct intensive observations of Ceres but also by having the least appealing name of any of the Ceres phases. It is known as RC3, or the third “rotation characterization” of the Ceres mission. (RC1 and RC2 will occur during the approach phase, as described in December.)

During RC3 in April 2015, Dawn will have its first opportunity for a global characterization of its new residence in the asteroid belt. It will take pictures and record visible and infrared spectra of the surface, which will help scientists determine its composition. In addition to learning about the appearance and makeup of Ceres, these observations will allow scientists to establish exactly where Ceres’s pole points. The axis Earth rotates around, for example, happens to point very near a star that has been correspondingly named Polaris, or the North Star. [Note to editors of local editions: You may change the preceding sentence to describe wherever the axis of your planet points.] We know only roughly where Ceres’s pole is from our telescopic studies, but Dawn’s measurements in RC3 will yield a much more accurate result. Also, as the spacecraft circles in Ceres’s gravitational hold, navigators will measure the strength of the gravitational pull and hence its overall mass.

RC3 will be at an orbital altitude of about 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). From there, the dwarf planet will appear eight times larger than the moon as viewed from Earth, or about the size of a soccer ball seen from 10 feet (3.1 meters). At that distance, Dawn will be able to capture the entire disk of Ceres in its pictures. The explorer’s camera, designed for mapping unfamiliar extraterrestrial landscapes from orbit, will see details more than 20 times finer than we have now from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Although all instruments will be operated in RC3, the gamma-ray and neutron detector (GRaND) will not be able to detect the faint nuclear emissions from Ceres when it is this far away. Rather, it will measure cosmic radiation. In August we will learn more about how GRaND will measure Ceres’s atomic composition when it is closer.

It will take about 15 days to complete a single orbital revolution at this altitude. Meanwhile, Ceres turns on its axis in just over nine hours (more than two and a half times faster than Earth). Dawn’s leisurely pace compared to the spinning world beneath it presents a very convenient way to map it. It is almost as if the probe hovers in place, progressing only through a short arc of its orbit as Ceres pirouettes helpfully before it.

When Dawn is on the lit side of Ceres over a latitude of about 43 degrees north, it will point its scientific instruments at the unfamiliar, exotic surface. As Ceres completes one full rotation, the robot will fill its data buffers with as much as they can hold, storing images and spectra. By then, most of the northern hemisphere will have presented itself, and Dawn will have traveled to about 34 degrees north latitude. The spacecraft will then aim its main antenna to Earth and beam its prized findings back for all those who long to know more about the mysteries of the solar system. When Dawn is between 3 degrees north and 6 degrees south latitude, it will perform the same routine, acquiring more photos and spectra as Ceres turns to reveal its equatorial regions. To gain a thorough view of the southern latitudes, it will follow the same strategy as it orbits from 34 degrees south to 43 degrees south.

When Dawn goes over to the dark side, it will still have important measurements to make (as long as Darth Vader does not interfere). While the surface immediately beneath it will be in darkness, part of the limb will be illuminated, displaying a lovely crescent against the blackness of space. Both in the southern hemisphere and in the northern, the spacecraft will collect more pictures and spectra from this unique perspective. Dawn’s orbital dance has been carefully choreographed to ensure the sensitive instruments are not pointed too close to the Sun.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s February 2014 Dawn Journal


It’s All About Grace Under Pressure for Dawn’s Drop Into Orbit

Friday, January 31st, 2014

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at the dwarf planet Ceres
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft thrusting with its ion propulsion system as it approaches the dwarf planet Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Rendawnvous,

Dawn is continuing its trek through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Leaving behind a blue-green wake of xenon from its ion propulsion system, its sights are set on dwarf planet Ceres ahead. The journey has been long, but the veteran space traveler (and its support team on distant Earth) is making good progress for its rendezvous early next year.

Last month, we had a preview of many of the activities the probe will execute during the three months that culminate in settling into the first observational orbit at Ceres in April 2015. At that orbit, about 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) above the alien landscapes of rock and ice, Dawn will begin its intensive investigations. Nevertheless, even during the “approach phase,” it will often observe Ceres with its camera and one of its spectrometers to gain a better fix on its trajectory and to perform some preliminary characterizations of the mysterious world prior to initiating its in-depth studies. The discussion in December did not cover the principal activity, however, which is one very familiar not only to the spacecraft but also to readers of these logs. The majority of the time in the approach phase will be devoted to continuing the ion-powered flight. We described this before Vesta, but for those few readers who don’t have perfect recall (we know who you are), let’s take another look at how this remarkable technology is used to deliver the adventurer to the desired orbit around Ceres.

Thrusting is not necessary for a spacecraft to remain in orbit, just as the moon remains in orbit around Earth and Earth and other planets remain in orbit around the sun without the benefit of propulsion. All but a very few spacecraft spend most of their time in space coasting, following the same orbit over and over unless redirected by a gravitational encounter with another body. In contrast, with its extraordinarily efficient ion propulsion system, Dawn’s near-continuous thrusting gradually changes its orbit. Thrusting since December 2007 has propelled Dawn from the orbit in which the Delta rocket deposited it after launch to orbits of still greater distance from the sun. The flight profile was carefully designed to send the craft by Mars in February 2009, so our celestial explorer could appropriate some of the planet’s orbital energy for the journey to the more distant asteroid belt, of which it is now a permanent resident. In exchange for Mars raising Dawn’s heliocentric orbit, Dawn lowered Mars’s orbit, ensuring the solar system’s energy account remained balanced.

While spacecraft have flown past a few asteroids in the main belt (although none as large as the gargantuan Vesta or Ceres, the two most massive objects in the belt), no prior mission has ever attempted to orbit one, much less two. For that matter, this is the first mission ever undertaken to orbit any two extraterrestrial destinations. Dawn’s exclusive assignment would be quite impossible without its uniquely capable ion propulsion system. But with its light touch on the accelerator, taking nearly four years to travel from Earth past Mars to Vesta, and more than two and a half years from Vesta to Ceres, how will it enter orbit around Ceres? As we review this topic in preparation for Ceres, bear in mind that this is more than just a cool concept or neat notion. This is real. The remarkable adventurer actually accomplished the extraordinary feats at Vesta of getting into and out of orbit using the delicate thrust of its ion engines.

Whether conventional spacecraft propulsion or ion propulsion is employed, entering orbit requires accompanying the destination on its own orbit around the sun. This intriguing challenge was addressed in part in February 2007. In February 2013, we considered another aspect of what is involved in climbing the solar system hill, with the sun at the bottom, Earth partway up, and the asteroid belt even higher. We saw that Dawn needs to ascend that hill, but it is not sufficient simply to reach the elevation of each target nor even to travel at the same speed as each target; the explorer also needs to travel in the same direction. Probes that leave Earth to orbit other solar system bodies traverse outward from (or inward toward) the sun, but then need to turn in order to move along with the body they will orbit, and that is difficult.

Those of you who have traveled around the solar system before are familiar with the routine of dropping into orbit. The spacecraft approaches its destination at very high velocity and fires its powerful engine for some minutes or perhaps even about an hour, by the end of which it is traveling slowly enough that the planet’s gravity can hold it in orbit and carry it around the sun. These exciting events may range from around 1,300 to 3,400 mph (0.6 to 1.5 kilometers per second). With ten thousand times less thrust than a typical propulsion system on an interplanetary spacecraft, Dawn could never accomplish such a rapid maneuver. As it turns out, however, it doesn’t have to.

Dawn’s method of getting into orbit is quite different, and the key is expressed in an attribute of ion propulsion that has been referred to 63 times (trust or verify; it’s your choice) before in these logs: it is gentle. (This example shows just how gentle the acceleration is.) With the gradual trajectory modifications inherent in ion propulsion, sharp changes in direction and speed are replaced by smooth, gentle curves. The thrust profiles for Dawn’s long interplanetary flights are devoted to the gradual reshaping of its orbit around the sun so that by the time it is in the vicinity of its target, its orbit is nearly the same as that of the target. Rather than hurtling toward Vesta or Ceres, Dawn approaches with grace and elegance. Only a small trajectory adjustment is needed to let its new partner’s gravity capture it, so even that gentle ion thrust will be quite sufficient to let the craft slip into orbit. With only a nudge, it transitions from its large, slow spiral away from the sun to an inward spiral centered around its new gravitational master.

illustration of Dawn's orbit
This graphic shows the planned trek of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from its launch in 2007 through its arrival at the dwarf planet Ceres in early 2015. Note how Dawn spirals outward to Vesta and then still more to Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To get into orbit, a spacecraft has to match speed, direction and location with its target. A mission with conventional propulsion first gets to the location and then, using the planet’s gravity and its own fuel-guzzling propulsion system, very rapidly achieves the required speed and direction. By spiraling outward from the sun, first to the orbit of Vesta and now to Ceres, Dawn works on its speed, direction and location all at the same time, so they all gradually reach the needed values at just the right time.

To illustrate this facet of the difference between how the different systems are applied to arrive in orbit, let’s imagine you want to drive your car next to another traveling west at 60 mph (100 kilometers per hour). The analogy with the conventional technology would be similar to speeding north toward an intersection where you know the other car will be. You arrive there at the same time and then execute a screeching, whiplash-inducing left turn at the last moment using the brakes, steering wheel, accelerator and adrenaline. When you drive an ion propelled car (with 10 times higher fuel efficiency), you take an entirely different path from the start, one more like a long, curving entrance ramp to a highway. As you enter the ramp, you slowly (perhaps even gently) build speed. You approach the highway gradually, and by the time you have reached the far end of the ramp, your car is traveling at the same speed and in the same direction as the other car. Of course, to ensure you are there when the other car is, the timing is very different from the first method, but the sophisticated techniques of orbital navigation are up to the task.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s January 2014 Dawn Journal


NASA’s Dawn Plans for Planetary Shores Ahead

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

NASA Dawn spacecraft between its targets, Vesta and Ceres
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft between the giant asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Clairvoydawnts,

Now more than halfway through its journey from protoplanet Vesta to dwarf planet Ceres, Dawn is continuing to use its advanced ion propulsion system to reshape its orbit around the sun. Now that the ship is closer to the uncharted shores ahead than the lands it unveiled astern, we will begin looking at the plans for exploring another alien world. In seven logs from now through August, we will discuss how the veteran adventurer will accomplish its exciting mission at Ceres. By the time it arrives early in 2015 at the largest object between Mars and Jupiter, readers will be ready to share not only in the drama of discovery but also in the thrill of an ambitious undertaking far, far from Earth.

Mission planners separate this deep-space expedition into phases. Following the “launch phase” was the 80-day “checkout phase”. The “interplanetary cruise phase” is the longest. It began on December 17, 2007, and continued to the “Vesta phase,” which extended from May 3, 2011, to Sept. 4, 2012. We are back in the interplanetary cruise phase again and will be until the “Ceres phase” begins in 2015. (Other phases may occur simultaneously with those phases, such as the “oh man, this is so cool phase,” the “we should devise a clever name for this phase phase,” and the “lunch phase.”) Because the tasks at Vesta and Ceres are so complex and diverse, they are further divided into sub-phases. The phases at Ceres will be very similar to those at Vesta, even though the two bodies are entirely different.

In this log, we will describe the Ceres “approach phase.” The objectives of approach are to get the explorer into orbit and to attain a preliminary look at the mysterious orb, both to satisfy our eagerness for a glimpse of a new and exotic world and to obtain data that will be helpful in refining details of the subsequent in-depth investigations. The phase will start in January 2015 when Dawn is about 400,000 miles (640,000 kilometers) from Ceres. It will conclude in April when the spacecraft has completed the ion thrusting necessary to maneuver into the first orbit from which it will conduct intensive observations, at an altitude of about 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). For a reason to be revealed below, that orbit is known by the catchy cognomen RC3.

(Previews for the Vesta approach phase were presented in March 2010 and May 2011, and the accounts of its actual execution are in logs from June, July, and August 2011. Future space historians should note that the differing phase boundaries at Vesta are no more than a matter of semantics. At Vesta, RC3 was described as being part of the approach phase. For Ceres, RC3 is its own distinct phase. The reasons for the difference in terminology are not only unimportant, they aren’t even interesting.)

The tremendous maneuverability provided by Dawn’s uniquely capable ion propulsion system means that the exact dates for events in the approach phase likely will change between now and then. So for those of you in 2015 following a link back to this log to see what the approach plan has been, we offer both the reminder that the estimated dates here might shift by a week or so and a welcome as you visit us here in the past. We look forward to meeting you (or even being you) when we arrive in the future.

Most of the approach phase will be devoted to ion thrusting, making the final adjustments to Dawn’s orbit around the sun so that Ceres’s gravity will gently take hold of the emissary from distant Earth. Next month we will explain more about the unusual nature of the gradual entry into orbit, which will occur on about March 25, 2015.

Starting in early February 2015, Dawn will suspend thrusting occasionally to point its camera at Ceres. The first time will be on Feb. 2, when they are 260,000 miles (420,000 kilometers) apart. To the camera’s eye, designed principally for mapping from a close orbit and not for long-range observations, Ceres will appear quite small, only about 24 pixels across. But these pictures of a fuzzy little patch will be invaluable for our celestial navigators. Such “optical navigation” images will show the location of Ceres with respect to background stars, thereby helping to pin down where it and the approaching robot are relative to each other. This provides a powerful enhancement to the navigation, which generally relies on radio signals exchanged between Dawn and Earth. Each of the 10 times Dawn observes Ceres during the approach phase will help navigators refine the probe’s course, so they can update the ion thrust profile to pilot the ship smoothly to its intended orbit.

Whenever the spacecraft stops to acquire images with the camera, it also will train the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer on Ceres. These early measurements will be helpful for finalizing the instrument parameters to be used for the extensive observations at closer range in subsequent mission phases.

Dawn obtained images more often during the Vesta approach phase than it will on approach to Ceres, and the reason is simple. It has lost two of its four reaction wheels, devices used to help turn or stabilize the craft in the zero-gravity, frictionless conditions of spaceflight. (In full disclosure, the units aren’t actually lost. We know precisely where they are. But given that they stopped functioning, they might as well be elsewhere in the universe; they don’t do Dawn any good.) Dawn’s hominin colleagues at JPL, along with excellent support from Orbital Sciences Corporation, have applied their remarkable creativity, tenacity, and technical acumen to devise a plan that should allow all the original objectives of exploring Ceres to be met regardless of the health of the wheels. One of the many methods that contributed to this surprising resilience was a substantial reduction in the number of turns during all remaining phases of the mission, thus conserving the precious hydrazine propellant used by the small jets of the reaction control system.

When Dawn next peers at Ceres, nine days after the first time, it will be around 180,000 miles (290,000 kilometers) away, and the pictures will be marginally better than the sharpest views ever captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. By the third optical navigation session, on Feb. 21, Ceres will show noticeably more detail.

At the end of February, Dawn will take images and spectra throughout a complete Ceres rotation of just over nine hours, or one Cerean day. During that period, while about 100,000 miles (160,000 kilometers) distant, Dawn’s position will not change significantly, so it will be almost as if the spacecraft hovers in place as the dwarf planet pirouettes beneath its watchful eye. Dawn will see most of the surface with a resolution twice as good as what has been achieved with Hubble. (At that point in the curving approach trajectory, the probe will be south of Ceres’s equator, so it will not be able to see the high northern latitudes.) This first “rotation characterization,” or RC1, not only provides the first (near-complete) look at the surface, but it may also suggest to insightful readers what will occur during the RC3 orbit phase.

There will be six more imaging sessions before the end of the approach phase, with Ceres growing larger in the camera’s view each time. When the second complete rotation characterization, RC2, is conducted on March 16, the resolution will be four times better than Hubble’s pictures. The last photos, to be collected on March 24, will reveal features seven times smaller than could be discerned with the powerful space observatory.

The approach imaging sessions will be used to accomplish even more than navigating, providing initial characterizations of the mysterious world, and whetting our appetites for more. Six of the opportunities also will include searches for moons of Ceres. Astronomers have not found moons of this dwarf planet in previous attempts, but Dawn’s unique vantage point would allow it to discover smaller ones than would have been detectable in previous attempts.

When the approach phase ends, Dawn will be circling its new home, held in orbit by the massive body’s gravitational grip and ready to begin more detailed studies. By then, however, the pictures and other data it will have returned will already have taught Earthlings a great deal about that enigmatic place. Ceres has been observed from Earth for more than two centuries, having first been spotted on January 1, 1801, but it has never appeared as much more than an indistinct blob amidst the stars. Soon a probe dispatched by the insatiably curious creatures on that faraway planet will take up residence there to uncover some of the secrets it has held since the dawn of the solar system. We don’t have long to wait!

Dawn is 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) from Vesta and 19 million miles (31 million kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.42 AU (225 million miles, or 362 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,015 times as far as the moon and 2.46 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 40 minutes to make the round trip.

› Read more entries from Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


For Dawn, a Time to Thrust and and a Time to Coast

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

The Dawn spacecraft's orbits
In this graphic of Dawn’s interplanetary trajectory, the thin solid lines represent the orbits of Earth, Mars, Vesta and Ceres. After leaving Vesta, Dawn’s orbit temporarily takes it closer to the Sun than Vesta, although in this view they are so close together the difference is not visible because of the thickness of the lines. Dawn will remain in orbit around Ceres at the end of its primary mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear All Hallows’ Dawns,

Deep in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn is continuing its smooth, silent flight toward dwarf planet Ceres. Far behind it now is the giant protoplanet Vesta, which the spacecraft transformed from a tiny splotch in the night sky to an exotic and richly detailed world.

The voyage from Vesta to Ceres will take the pertinacious probe 2.5 years. The great majority of spacecraft coast most of the time (just as planets and moons do), each one following a trajectory determined principally by whatever momentum they started with (usually following release from a rocket) and the gravitational fields of the sun and other nearby, massive bodies. In contrast, Dawn spends most of its time thrusting with its ion propulsion system. The gentle but efficient push from the high velocity xenon ions gradually reshapes its orbit around the sun. In September 2012, as it departed Vesta after 14 months of scrutinizing the second most massive resident of the asteroid belt, Dawn’s heliocentric orbit was the same as the rocky behemoth’s. Now they are very far apart, and by early 2015, the robotic explorer’s path will be close enough to Ceres’s that they will become locked in a gravitational embrace.

Without ion propulsion, Dawn’s unique mission to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations would be impossible. No other spacecraft has attempted such a feat. To accomplish its interplanetary journey, the spaceship has thrust more than 96 percent of the time since propelling itself away from Vesta last year. Whenever it points its ion engine in the direction needed to rendezvous with Ceres, its main antenna cannot also be aimed at Earth. Dawn functions very well on its own, however, communicating only occasionally with its terrestrial colleagues. Once every four weeks, it interrupts thrusting to rotate so it can use its 5-foot (1.52-meter) antenna to establish contact with NASA’s Deep Space Network, receiving new instructions from the Dawn operations team at JPL and transmitting a comprehensive report on all its subsystems. Then it turns back to the orientation needed for thrusting and resumes its powered flight.

During its years of interplanetary travel, Dawn has reliably followed a carefully formulated flight plan from Earth past Mars to Vesta and now from Vesta to Ceres. We discussed some of the principles underlying the development of the complex itinerary in a log written when Dawn was still gravitationally anchored to Earth. To carry out its ambitious adventure, Dawn should thrust most of the time, but not all of the time. Indeed, at some times, thrusting would be unproductive.

We will not delve into the details here, but remember that Dawn is doing more than ascending the solar system hill, climbing away from the sun. More challenging than that is making its orbit match the orbit of its targets so that it does not fly past them for a brief encounter as some other missions do. Performing its intricate interplanetary choreography requires exquisite timing with the grace and delicacy of the subtly powerful ion propulsion.

Of course Dawn does not thrust much of the time it is in orbit at Vesta and Ceres; rather, its focus there is on acquiring the precious pictures and other measurements that reveal the detailed nature of these mysterious protoplanets. But even during the interplanetary flight, there are two periods in the mission in which it is preferable to coast. Sophisticated analysis is required to compute the thrusting direction and schedule, based on factors ranging from the physical characteristics of the solar system (e.g., the mass of the sun and the masses and orbits of Earth, Mars, Vesta, Ceres and myriad other bodies that tug, even weakly, on Dawn) to the capabilities of the spacecraft (e.g., electrical power available to the ion thrusters) to constraints on when mission planners will not allow thrusting (e.g., during spacecraft maintenance periods).

The first interval that interplanetary trajectory designers designated as “optimal coast” was well over four years and 1.8 billion miles (2.8 billion kilometers) ago. Dawn coasted from October 31, 2008, to June 8, 2009. During that time, the ship took some of Mars’s orbital energy to help propel itself toward Vesta. (In exchange for boosting Dawn, Mars slowed down by an amount equivalent to about 1 inch, or 2.5 centimeters, in 180 million years.)

The second and final interval when coasting is better than thrusting begins next month. From Nov. 11 to Dec. 9, Dawn will glide along in its orbit around the sun without modifying it. The timing of this coast period is nearly as important to keeping the appointment with Ceres as is the timing of the thrusting. In next month’s log, we will describe some of the special assignments the sophisticated robot will perform instead of its usual quiet cruise routine of accelerating and emitting xenon ions. We also will look ahead to some interesting celestial milestones and alignments in December.

While the spacecraft courses through the asteroid belt, the flight team continues refining the plans for Ceres. In logs in December and several months in 2014, we will present extensive details of those plans so that by the time Dawn begins its mission there, you will be ready to ride along and share in the experience.

In the meantime, as the stalwart ship sails on, it is propelled not only by ions but also by the promise of exciting new knowledge and the prospects of a thrilling new adventure in exploring an uncharted alien world.

Dawn is 16 million miles (26 million kilometers) from Vesta and 25 million miles (39 million kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.07 AU (286 million miles, or 460 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,200 times as far as the moon and 3.10 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 51 minutes to make the round trip.

– Dr. Marc D. Rayman

P.S. This log is posted early enough to allow time for your correspondent to don his Halloween costume. In contrast to last year’s simple (yet outlandish) costume, this year’s will be more complex. He is going in double costume, disguised as someone who is only pretending to be passionate about the exploration of the cosmos and the rewards of scientific insight.

› Read more entries from Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Celebrates Six Years in Space

Friday, September 27th, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft between the giant asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Dawnniversaries,

On the sixth anniversary of leaving Earth to embark on a daring deep-space expedition, Dawn is very, very far from its erstwhile planetary residence. Now humankind’s only permanent resident of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the seasoned explorer is making good progress toward the largest object in that part of the solar system, the mysterious dwarf planet Ceres. The voyage is long, and the intrepid but patient traveler will not reach its next destination until half a year after its seventh anniversary of departing Earth.

On its fifth anniversary, Dawn was still relatively close to Vesta, the giant protoplanet that had so recently held the craft in its gravitational grip. The only probe ever to orbit a main belt asteroid, Dawn spent 14 months (including its fourth anniversary) accompanying Vesta on its way around the sun. After more than two centuries of appearing to astronomers as little more than a fuzzy blob of light among the stars, the second most massive body in the asteroid belt has been revealed as a fascinating, complex, alien world more closely related to terrestrial planets (including Earth) than to typical asteroids.

Most of the ship’s first four years of spaceflight were devoted to using its ion propulsion system to spiral away from the sun, ascending the solar system hill from Earth to Vesta. Now it is working to climb still higher up that hill to Ceres.

For those who would like to track the probe’s progress in the same terms used on previous (and, we boldly predict, subsequent) anniversaries, we present here the sixth annual summary, reusing the text from last year with updates where appropriate. Readers who wish to cogitate about the extraordinary nature of this deep-space expedition may find it helpful to compare this material with the logs from its first, second, third, fourth, and fifth anniversaries.

In its six years of interplanetary travels, the spacecraft has thrust for a total of 1,410 days, or 64 percent of the time (and about 0.000000028 percent of the time since the Big Bang). While for most spacecraft, firing a thruster to change course is a special event, it is Dawn’s wont. All this thrusting has cost the craft only 318 kilograms (701 pounds) of its supply of xenon propellant, which was 425 kilograms (937 pounds) on September 27, 2007.

The thrusting so far in the mission has achieved the equivalent of accelerating the probe by 8.7 kilometers per second (19,500 mph). As previous logs have described (see here for one of the more extensive discussions), because of the principles of motion for orbital flight, whether around the sun or any other gravitating body, Dawn is not actually traveling this much faster than when it launched. But the effective change in speed remains a useful measure of the effect of any spacecraft’s propulsive work. Having accomplished about three-quarters of the thrust time planned for its entire mission, Dawn has already far exceeded the velocity change achieved by any other spacecraft under its own power. (For a comparison with probes that enter orbit around Mars, refer to this earlier log.)

Since launch, our readers who have remained on or near Earth have completed six revolutions around the sun, covering about 37.7 AU (5.6 billion kilometers or 3.5 billion miles). Orbiting farther from the sun, and thus moving at a more leisurely pace, Dawn has traveled 27.4 AU (4.1 billion kilometers or 2.5 billion miles). As it climbed away from the sun to match its orbit to that of Vesta, it continued to slow down to Vesta’s speed. It will have to slow down still more to rendezvous with Ceres. Since Dawn’s launch, Vesta has traveled only 24.2 AU (3.6 billion kilometers or 2.2 billion miles), and the even more sedate Ceres has gone 22.8 AU (3.4 billion kilometers or 2.1 billion miles).

Another way to investigate the progress of the mission is to chart how Dawn’s orbit around the sun has changed. This discussion will culminate with a few more numbers than we usually include, and readers who prefer not to indulge may skip this material, leaving that much more for the grateful Numerivores. In order to make the table below comprehensible (and to fulfill our commitment of environmental responsibility), we recycle some more text here on the nature of orbits.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


Earth and Dawn on Opposite Sides Now

Friday, August 30th, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

The Dawn spacecraft's orbits
In this graphic of Dawn’s interplanetary trajectory, the thin solid lines represent the orbits of Earth, Mars, Vesta and Ceres. After leaving Vesta, Dawn’s orbit temporarily takes it closer to the Sun than Vesta, although in this view they are so close together the difference is not visible because of the thickness of the lines. Dawn will remain in orbit around Ceres at the end of its primary mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Antecedawnts,

Traveling confidently and alone, Dawn continues to make its way through the silent depths of the main asteroid belt. The only spacecraft ever to have orbited a resident of the vast territory between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn conducted a spectacular exploration of gigantic Vesta, revealing a complex place that resembles the terrestrial planets more than typical asteroids. Now the interplanetary adventurer is on its long journey to the uncharted dwarf planet Ceres, by far the largest of all asteroids (975 kilometers, or more than 600 miles, in equatorial diameter). In 2015, the mysterious world of rock and ice will begin to give up its ancient secrets to the immigrant from distant Earth.

Earth, Vesta, Dawn, and Ceres are following their own separate paths around the sun. The spacecraft is patiently reshaping its orbit, using its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system to accomplish a deep-space expedition that would be impossible with conventional propulsion.

As we have seen in many previous logs (including, for example, here), the higher an object’s orbit, the slower it needs to move in order to balance the gravitational pull, which diminishes with distance. Blistering Mercury orbits the sun faster than Venus, Venus goes faster than Earth, Earth goes faster than Mars, and Mars goes faster than the residents of the asteroid belt and the cold planets of the outer solar system. In the same way, satellites that orbit close to Earth, including the International Space Station, move faster than those at greater altitudes, and the moon travels even more slowly in its very high orbit.

Dawn is now a permanent inhabitant of the main asteroid belt. Therefore, the massive sun, the gravitational master of the solar system, has a weaker grip on it than on Earth. So as Dawn maneuvers from Vesta to Ceres, Earth revolves more rapidly around the sun. This month, their independent motions have taken them to their greatest separation of the year, as they are on opposite sides of the sun. How truly remarkable that humankind can accomplish such a feat!

On August 4, the planet and its robotic ambassador to the cosmos were an extraordinary 3.47 AU (519 million kilometers, or 322 million miles) apart. (To recapture the feeling of your position in the universe then, it may be helpful to know that the maximum range was attained at 4:16 a.m. PDT.) From the perspective of terrestrial observers, had they possessed the superhuman (and even supertelescopic) vision needed to descry the tiny ship far beyond the blindingly bright star, Dawn would have appeared to be very close to the sun but not directly behind it. To rendezvous with Vesta and then with Ceres, the spacecraft has tilted the plane of its solar orbit. Some of the time it is north of Earth’s orbital plane, sometimes it is south. August 4 was during the northern segment, so Dawn would have been a little north of the sun.

It’s time to refer to one of those novel clocks available in the Dawn gift shop on your planet (although if you already have such a clock, it probably doesn’t tell you that it’s time — we stand by our policy of full refunds within 24 hours, as measured by our Dawn clocks). With the sun at the center of the clock, Earth’s motion would be like that of a short minute hand. Dawn, both farther from the sun and moving more slowly, would be following the path of a longer hour hand. If we ignore the effect of the ion thrust, which is constantly changing the orbit, and the slight misalignment of the hour hand representing Dawn’s being in a different plane, the conditions on August 4 were like those at 6:00.

As time progresses and Earth continues circling the sun, it will come closer to Dawn until April 2014 (like 12:00). Even then, however, they will be over 1.55 AU (232 million kilometers, or 144 million miles) apart, and they will never be that close again. The spacecraft will continue climbing higher and higher from the sun toward Ceres, so by the time Earth loops around once more, Dawn will be even farther from it. In the meantime, when next the arrangement is like 6:00, in December 2014, the separation will be more than 3.78 AU (565 million kilometers, or 351 million miles), even greater than the remarkable range a few weeks ago.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


Dawn’s Journey: A Power Trip

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Dawn's solar arrays are folded to fit inside the nose cone in preparation for launch
The Dawn spacecraft’s solar array wings — pictured here in a folded position in preparation for launch — span 19.7 meters (nearly 65 feet) and are designed to keep the spacecraft powered even as it ventures further from the sun into the remote asteroid belt. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Megalodawniacs,

Powering its way through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn continues on course and on schedule for its 2015 appointment with dwarf planet Ceres. After spending more than a year orbiting and scrutinizing Vesta, the second most massive object in the asteroid belt, the robotic explorer has its sights set on the largest object between the sun and Neptune that a spacecraft has not yet visited. This exotic expedition to unveil mysterious alien worlds would be impossible without the probe’s ion propulsion system.

Ion propulsion is not a source of power for this interplanetary spaceship. Rather, the craft needs a great deal of power to operate its ion propulsion system and all other systems. It needs so much that…

We crave power!!

The ion propulsion system is power-hungry. The process of ionizing xenon and then accelerating it to high velocity consumes a significant amount of electrical power, all of which is provided by the spacecraft’s huge solar arrays. With these two wings and its ion tail, Dawn resembles a celestial dragonfly. But this extraterrestrial odonate is a giant, with a wingspan of 19.7 meters (nearly 65 feet). When it was launched in 2007, this was the greatest tip-to-tip length of any probe NASA had ever dispatched on an interplanetary voyage. (Some such spacecraft have had flexible wire-like antennas that reach to greater lengths.) The large area of solar cells is needed to capture feeble sunlight in the remote asteroid belt to meet all of the electrical needs. Each solar array wing is the width of a singles tennis court, and the entire structure would extend from a pitcher’s mound to home plate on a professional baseball field, although Dawn is engaged in activities considerably more inspiring and rewarding than competitive sports.

To sail the ship to its intended destination, navigators plot a complex course on the solar system sea. The thrust delivered by the ion engine depends on the power level; higher power translates into higher (but still ever so gentle) thrust. The farther Dawn is from the luminous sun, the less power is available, so the thrust is lower. Therefore, to keep it on its itinerary, mission planners need to know the thrust at all times in the future. It would not be a recipe for success to propel the spacecraft to a position in space from which it could not achieve enough thrust to accomplish the rest of the carefully designed journey to Ceres.

To formulate the flight plan then requires knowing how much power will be available even as the probe ventures farther from the sun. Engineers make mathematical predictions of the power the solar arrays will generate, but these calculations are surprisingly difficult. Well, perhaps some readers would not be surprised, but it is more complicated than simply reducing the power in proportion to the intensity of the sunlight. As one example, at greater distances from the sun, the temperature of the arrays in the cold depths of space would be even lower, and the efficiency of the solar cells depends on their temperature. In 2008, the operations team devised and implemented a method to refine their estimates of the solar array performance, and that work enabled the deep-space traveler to arrive at Vesta earlier and depart later. Now they have developed a related but superior technique, which the faithful spacecraft executed flawlessly on June 24.

The only way to measure the power generation capability of the arrays is to draw power from them. With the ion thrust off, even with all other systems turned on, the spacecraft cannot consume as much power as the arrays can provide, so no meaningful measurement would be possible.

In typical operations, Dawn keeps its solar arrays pointed directly at the sun. For this special calibration, it rotated them so the incident sunlight came at a different angle. This reduced the total amount of light falling on the cells, effectively creating the conditions the spacecraft will experience when it has receded from the sun. As the angle increased, corresponding to greater distances from the brilliant star, the arrays produced less power, so the ion engine had to be throttled down. (The engines can be operated at 112 different throttle levels, each with a different input power and different thrust level.)

Engineers estimated what the maximum throttle level would be at each of the angles as well as the total power all other systems would consume during the test and then programmed it so the ion propulsion system would throttle down appropriately as the solar array angle increased. Of course, they could not know exactly what the highest throttle level at each angle would be; if they did, then they would already know the solar array characteristics well enough that the calibration would be unnecessary. Fortunately, however, they did not need to determine the perfect levels in advance. The sophisticated robot is smart enough to reduce by a few throttle levels if it detects that all systems combined are drawing more power than the solar arrays generate.

Under normal circumstances, the spacecraft doesn’t need to adjust the ion throttle level on its own. Engineers know the solar array performance well enough that they can predict the correct setting with high accuracy for a typical four-week sequence of commands stored onboard. It is only for the much greater distances from the sun in the years ahead that the uncertainty becomes important. In addition, during regular operations, if the spacecraft temporarily needs to use more heaters than usual (more than 140 heaters are distributed around the ship, each turning on and off as needed), thereby increasing the power demand, its battery can make up for the difference. That avoids unnecessary throttle changes.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


For Dawn, a Little Push Goes a Long Way

Monday, July 1st, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Mosaic of Dawn's images of asteroid Vesta
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Dawnamic Readers,

The indefatigable Dawn spacecraft is continuing its extraordinary interplanetary flight on behalf of inquisitive creatures on distant Earth. Progressing ever farther from Vesta, the rocky and rugged world it so recently explored, the ship is making good progress toward its second port of call, dwarf planet Ceres.

We have seen in many logs that this adventure would be quite impossible without its advanced ion propulsion system. Even a mission only to orbit Vesta, which Dawn has accomplished with such stunning success, would have been unaffordable in NASA’s Discovery Program without ion propulsion. This is the only probe ever to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But now, thanks to this sophisticated technology, it is going beyond even that accomplishment to do something no other spacecraft has attempted. Dawn is the only mission ever targeted to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, making it truly an interplanetary spaceship.

Ion Propulsion System Hot Fire Test for Deep Space 1
Ion Propulsion System Hot Fire Test for the Deep Space 1 spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ion propulsion is 10 times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion, so it enables much more ambitious missions. It uses its xenon propellant so parsimoniously, however, that the thrust is also exceptionally gentle. Indeed, the ion engine exerts about as much force on the spacecraft as you would feel if you held a single sheet of paper in your hand. At today’s thrust level, it would take more than five days to accelerate from zero to 60 mph. While that won’t rattle your bones, in the frictionless, zero-gravity conditions of spaceflight, the effect of the thrust gradually accumulates. Instead of thrusting for five days, Dawn thrusts for years. Ion propulsion delivers acceleration with patience, and patience is among this explorer’s many virtues.

To accomplish its mission, Dawn is outfitted with three ion engines. In the irreverent spirit with which this project has always been conducted, the units are fancifully known as #1, #2, and #3. (The locations of the thrusters were disclosed in a log shortly after launch, once the spacecraft was too far from Earth for the information to be exploited for tawdry sensationalism.) For comparison, the Star Wars TIE fighters were Twin Ion Engine ships, so now science fact does one better than science fiction. On the other hand, the TIE fighters employed a design that did seem to provide greater agility, perhaps at the expense of fuel efficiency. Your correspondent would concur that when you are trying to destroy your enemy while dodging blasts from his laser cannons, economy of propellant consumption probably isn’t the most important consideration.

At any rate, Dawn only uses one ion engine at a time. Since August 31, 2011, it has accomplished all of its thrusting with thruster #3. That thruster propelled Dawn along its complex spiral path down from an altitude of 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) to 210 kilometers (130 miles) above Vesta’s dramatic landscape and then back up again. Eventually, the engine pushed Dawn out of orbit, and it has continued to work to reshape the spacecraft’s heliocentric course so that it ultimately will match Ceres’s orbit around the sun.

Although any of the thrusters can accomplish the needed propulsion, and all three are still healthy, engineers consider many factors in deciding which to use at different times in the mission. Now they have decided to put #2 back to work. So on June 24, after its regular monthly hiatus in thrusting to point the main antenna to Earth for a communications session, the robotic explorer turned to aim that thruster, rather than thruster #3, in the direction needed to continue the journey to Ceres. Despite not being operated in nearly two years, #2 came to life as smoothly as ever. It is now emitting a blue-green beam of xenon ions as the craft has its sights set on the mysterious alien world ahead.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


Smooth Sailing: Dawn Spacecraft Passes Endurance Test

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Mosaic of Dawn's images of asteroid Vesta
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Confidawnts,

Traveling from one alien world to another, Dawn is reliably powering its way through the main asteroid belt with its ion propulsion system. Vesta, the fascinating and complex protoplanet it explored in 2011 and 2012, falls farther and farther behind as the spacecraft gently and patiently reshapes its orbit around the sun, aiming for a 2015 rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres.

The stalwart adventurer has recently completed its longest uninterrupted ion thrust period yet. As part of the campaign to conserve precious hydrazine propellant, Dawn now suspends thrusting once every four weeks to point its main antenna to Earth. (In contrast, spacecraft with conventional chemical propulsion spend the vast majority of time coasting.) Because of details of the mission operations schedule and the schedule for NASA’s Deep Space Network, the thrust durations can vary by a few days. As a result, the spacecraft spent 31.2 days thrusting without a hiatus. This exceeds Deep Space 1’s longest sustained powered flight of 29.2 days. While there currently are no plans to thrust for longer times, the unique craft certainly is capable of doing so. The principal limitation is how much data it can store on the performance of all subsystems (pressures, temperatures, currents, voltages, valve positions, etc.) for subsequent reporting to its terrestrial colleagues.

Thanks to the ship’s dependability, the operations team has been able to devote much of its energies recently to developing and refining the complex plans for the exploration of Ceres. You might be among the privileged readers who will get a preview when we begin describing the plans later this year.

Controllers also have devised some special activities for the spacecraft to perform in the near future, accounts of which are predicted to be in the next two logs.

In addition, team members have had time to maintain their skills for when the spacecraft needs more attention. Earlier this month, they conducted an operational readiness test (ORT). One diabolical engineer carefully configured the Dawn spacecraft simulator at JPL to behave as if a pebble one-half of a centimeter (one-fifth of an inch) in diameter shooting through the asteroid belt collided with the probe at well over twice the velocity of a high-performance rifle bullet.

When the explorer entered this region of space, we discussed that it was not as risky as residents of other parts of the solar system might assume. Dawn does not require Han Solo’s piloting skills to avoid most of the dangerous rocky debris.

The robot could tolerate such a wound, but it would require some help from operators to resume normal operations. This exercise presented the spacecraft team with an opportunity to spend several days working through the diagnosis and performing the steps necessary to continue the mission (using some of the ship’s backup systems). While the specific problem is extremely unlikely to occur, the ORT provided valuable training for new members of the project and served to keep others sharp.

One more benefit of the smooth operations is the time that it enables your correspondent to write his third shortest log ever. (Feel free to do the implied research.) Frequent readers can only hope he strives to achieve such a gratifying feat again!

Dawn is 13 million kilometers (7.9 million miles) from Vesta and 54 million kilometers (34 million miles) from Ceres. It is also 3.25 AU (486 million kilometers or 302 million miles) from Earth, or 1,275 times as far as the moon and 3.20 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 54 minutes to make the round trip.

› Read previous Dawn Journals by Marc Rayman


To Be in the Right Place, Dawn Catches Up With Time

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

The Dawn spacecraft's orbits
In this graphic of Dawn’s interplanetary trajectory, the thin solid lines represent the orbits of Earth, Mars, Vesta and Ceres. After leaving Vesta, Dawn’s orbit temporarily takes it closer to the Sun than Vesta, although in this view they are so close together the difference is not visible because of the thickness of the lines. Dawn will remain in orbit around Ceres at the end of its primary mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Dawnscerning Readers,

Nearly three times as far from Earth as the sun is, the Dawn spacecraft is making very good progress on its ambitious trek from Vesta to Ceres. After a spectacular adventure at the second most massive resident of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn used its extraordinary ion propulsion system to leave it behind and undertake the long journey to a dwarf planet.

Ceres orbits the sun outside Vesta’s orbit, yet Dawn is now closer to the sun than both of these alien worlds. How can it be that as the probe climbs from one to the other, it seems to be falling inward? Perhaps the answer lies in the text below; let’s venture on and find out!

On Halloween we discussed why Dawn is heading in toward the sun, but this question is different. Vesta also is getting closer to the sun, but what’s of interest now is that Dawn, despite its more remote destination, has been approaching the sun more quickly. That earlier log stands out as the best one ever written on this exciting mission in the entire history of October 2012, but if you prefer not to visit it now, we can summarize here the explanation for the spacecraft moving toward the sun. Like all members of the sun’s entourage, Vesta and Ceres follow elliptical orbits, their distances from the master of the solar system growing and shrinking as they loop around it. Even Earth’s orbit, although nearly round, certainly is not perfectly circular. Our planet is a little closer to the sun in the northern hemisphere winter (southern hemisphere summer) than it is in the summer (southern hemisphere winter). Dawn’s orbit is elliptical as well, so it naturally moves nearer to the sun sometimes, and now is such a time. But that does not address why it is currently closer to the sun than Vesta, even though it is seeking out the more distant Ceres.

Because it will orbit Ceres, and not simply fly past it (which would be significantly easier but less valuable), Dawn must make its own orbit around the sun be identical to its target’s. But that is not the entire story. After spending 14 months orbiting Vesta, Dawn’s challenge is more than to change the shape of its orbit to match Ceres’s. The spacecraft also must be at the same place in Ceres’s heliocentric orbit that Ceres itself is.

It would not be very rewarding to follow the same looping path around the sun but always be somewhere else on that path. You can visualize this if you have one of the many defective — er, exotic clocks from the Dawn gift shop on your planet that have two minute hands. If the clock starts with one hand pointed at 12 and another pointed at 1, they will take the same repetitive route, but neither hand will ever catch up with the other. For Dawn’s goal of exploring Ceres, this would not prove satisfying. Therefore, part of the objective of the ion thrusting is to ensure the spacecraft arrives not only on the same heliocentric course as Ceres but is there when Ceres is also.

This is a problem familiar to all readers who have maneuvered in orbit, where the principles of orbital mechanics are the rules of the road. To solve it, we rely on one of the laws that we have addressed many times in these logs: objects in a lower orbit travel faster. We described this in more detail in February, and we can recall the essential idea here. The gravitational attraction of any body, whether it is the sun, Earth, a black hole, or anything else, is greater at shorter ranges. So to balance that strong inward pull, an orbiter is compelled to race around quickly. At higher orbits, where gravity is weaker, a more leisurely orbital pace suffices.

We can take advantage of this characteristic of orbits. If we drop to a slightly lower orbit, we travel along more swiftly. That is precisely what Dawn needs to do in order to ensure that when it finishes expanding and tilting its orbit in 2015 so that it is the same as Ceres’s, it winds up at the same location as its target. This would be like speeding up the minute hand that had begun at the 12, allowing it to catch up with the hand that would otherwise always be leading it.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


While Dawn Keeps Cruising, Engineers Carry On

Friday, March 29th, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Mosaic of Dawn's images of asteroid Vesta
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Indawnstrious Readers,

In the depths of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, far from Earth, far even from any human-made object, Dawn remains in silent pursuit of dwarf planet Ceres. It has been more than six months since it slipped gracefully away from the giant protoplanet Vesta. The spacecraft has spent 95 percent of the time since then gently thrusting with its ion propulsion system, using that blue-green beam of high velocity xenon ions to propel itself from one alien world to another.

The ship set sail from Earth more than two thousand days ago, and its voyage on the celestial seas has been wonderfully rewarding. Its extensive exploration of Vesta introduced humankind to a complex and fascinating place that had only been tantalizingly glimpsed from afar with telescopes beginning with its discovery 206 years ago today. Thanks to the extraordinary capability of ion propulsion, Dawn was able to spend 14 months orbiting Vesta, observing dramatic landscapes and exotic features and collecting a wealth of measurements that scientists will continue to analyze for many years.

When it was operating close to Vesta, the spacecraft was in frequent contact with Earth. It took Dawn quite a bit of time to beam the 31,000 photos and other precious data to mission control. In addition, engineers needed to send a great many instructions to the distant adventurer to ensure it remained healthy and productive in carrying out its demanding work in the unforgiving depths of space.

Dawn is now more than 20 times farther from Vesta than the moon is from Earth. Alone again and on its long trek to Ceres, it is not necessary for the ship to be in radio contact as often. As we saw in November, the spacecraft now stops ion thrusting only once every four weeks to point its main antenna to Earth. This schedule conserves the invaluable hydrazine propellant the explorer will need at Ceres. But communicating less frequently does not mean the mission operations team is any less busy. Indeed, as we have explained before, “quiet cruise” consists of a considerable amount of activity.

Each time Dawn communicates with Earth, controllers transmit a second-by-second schedule for the subsequent four weeks. They also load a detailed flight profile with the ion throttle levels and directions for that period. It takes about three weeks to calculate and formulate these plans and to analyze, check, double check, and triple check them to ensure they are flawless before they can be radioed to Dawn.

In addition to all the usual information Dawn needs to keep flying smoothly, operators occasionally include some special instructions. As one example, over the last few months, they have gradually lowered the temperatures of some components slightly in order to reduce heater power. When Dawn stretched out its solar array wings shortly after separating from the Delta rocket on September 27, 2007, its nearly 65-foot wingspan was the longest of any NASA interplanetary probe. The large area of solar cells is needed to collect enough light from the distant sun to power the ion propulsion system and all other spacecraft systems. Devoting a little less power to heaters allows more power to be applied to ionizing and accelerating xenon, yielding greater thrust. With two and a half years of powered flight required to travel from Vesta to Ceres, even a little extra power can make a worthwhile difference to a mission that craves power.

Most temperature adjustments are only two degrees Celsius (3.8 degrees Fahrenheit) at a time, but even that requires careful analysis and investigation, because lowering the temperature of one component may affect another. Xenon and hydrazine propellants need to be maintained in certain ranges, and the lines they flow through follow complicated paths around the spacecraft, so the temperatures all along the way matter. Most of the hardware onboard, from valves and switches to electronics to structural mounts for sensitively aligned units, needs to be thermally regulated to keep Dawn shipshape.

It can take hours for a component to cool down and stabilize at a new setting, and sometimes the change won’t even occur until the spacecraft has turned away to resume thrusting, when the faint warmth of the sun and the deep cold of black space affect different parts of the complex robot. Then it will be another four weeks until engineers will receive a comprehensive report on all the temperatures, so they need to be cautious with each change.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


A Hard Day’s Flight: Dawn Achieves Orbital Velocity

Friday, March 1st, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Mosaic of Dawn's images of asteroid Vesta
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Impordawnt Readers,

The indefatigable Dawn spacecraft is continuing to forge through the main asteroid belt, gently thrusting with its ion propulsion system. As it gradually changes its orbit around the sun, the distance to dwarf planet Ceres slowly shrinks. The pertinacious probe will arrive there in 2015 to explore the largest body between the sun and Neptune that has not yet been glimpsed by a visitor from Earth. Meanwhile, Vesta, the fascinating alien world Dawn revealed in 2011 and 2012, grows ever more distant. The mini-planet it orbited and studied in such detail now appears only as a pinpoint of light 15 times farther from Dawn than the moon is from Earth.

Climbing through the solar system atop a column of blue-green xenon ions, Dawn has a great deal of powered flight ahead in order to match orbits with faraway Ceres. Nevertheless, it has shown quite admirably that it is up to the task. The craft has spent more time thrusting and has changed its orbit under its own power more than any other ship from Earth. While most of the next two years will be devoted to still more thrusting, the ambitious adventurer has already accomplished much more than it has left to do. And now it is passing an interesting milestone on its interplanetary trek.

With all of the thrusting Dawn has completed, it has now changed its speed by 7.74 kilometers per second (17,300 mph), and the value grows as the ion thrusting continues. For space enthusiasts from Earth, that is a special speed, known as “orbital velocity.” Many satellites, including the International Space Station, travel at about that velocity in their orbits. So does this mean that Dawn has only now achieved the velocity necessary to orbit Earth? The short answer is no. The longer answer constitutes the remainder of this log.

We have discussed some of these principles before, but they are counterintuitive and questions continue to arise. Rather than send our readers on a trajectory through the history of these logs even more complicated than Dawn’s flight through the asteroid belt, we will revisit a few of the ideas here. (After substantial introspection, your correspondent granted and was granted permission to reuse not only past text but also future text.)

While marking Dawn’s progress in terms of its speed is a convenient description of the effectiveness of its maneuvering, it is not truly a measure of how fast it is moving. Rather, it is a measure of how fast it would be moving under very special (and unrealistic) circumstances. To understand this, we need to look at the nature of orbits in general and Dawn’s interplanetary trajectory in particular.

The overwhelming majority of craft humans have sent into space have remained in the vicinity of Earth, accompanying that planet on its annual revolutions around the sun. All satellites of Earth (including the moon) remain bound to it by its gravity. (Similarly, Dawn spent much of 2011 and 2012 as a satellite of distant Vesta, locked in the massive body’s gravitational grip.) As fast as satellites seem to travel compared to terrestrial residents, from the larger solar system perspective, their incessant circling of Earth means their paths through space are not very different from Earth’s itself. Consider the path of a car racing around a long track. If a fly buzzes around inside the car, to the driver it may seem to be moving fast, but if someone watching the car from a distance plotted the fly’s path, on average it would be pretty much like the car’s.

Everything on the planet and orbiting it travels around the sun at an average of 30 kilometers per second (67,000 mph), completing one full solar orbit every year. To undertake its interplanetary journey and travel elsewhere in the solar system, Dawn needed to break free of Earth’s grasp, and that was accomplished by the rocket that carried it to space more than five years ago. Dawn and its erstwhile home went their separate ways, and the sun became the natural reference for the spacecraft’s position and speed on its voyage in deep space.

Despite the enormous push the Delta II rocket delivered (with affection!) to Dawn, the spacecraft still did not have nearly enough energy to escape from the powerful sun. So, being a responsible resident of the solar system, Dawn has remained faithfully in orbit around the sun, just as Earth and the rest of the planets, asteroids, comets, and other members of the star’s entourage have.

Whether it is for a spacecraft or moon orbiting a planet, a planet or Dawn orbiting the sun, the sun orbiting the Milky Way galaxy, or the Milky Way galaxy orbiting the Virgo supercluster of galaxies (home to a sizeable fraction of our readership), any orbit is the perfect balance between the inward tug of gravity and the inexorable tendency of objects to travel in a straight path. If you attach a weight to a string and swing it around in a circle, the force you use to pull on the string mimics the gravitational force the sun exerts on the bodies that orbit it. The effort you expend in keeping the weight circling serves constantly to redirect its path; if you let go of the string, the weight’s natural motion would carry it away in a straight line (ignoring the effect of Earth’s gravity).

The force of gravity diminishes with distance, so the sun’s pull on a nearby body is greater than on a more distant one. Therefore, to remain in orbit, to balance the relentless tug of gravity, the closer object must travel faster, fighting the stronger pull. The same effect applies at Earth. Satellites that orbit very close (including, for example, the International Space Station, around 400 kilometers, or 250 miles, from the surface) must streak around the planet at about 7.7 kilometers per second (17,000 mph) to keep from being pulled down. The moon, orbiting almost 1000 times farther above, needs only to travel at about 1.0 kilometers per second (less than 2300 mph) to balance Earth’s weaker hold at that distance.

Notice that this means that for an astronaut to travel from the surface of Earth to the International Space Station, it would be necessary to accelerate to quite a high speed to rendezvous with the orbital facility. But then once in orbit, to journey to the much more remote moon, the astronaut’s speed eventually would have to decline dramatically. Perhaps speed tells an incomplete story in describing the travels of a spacecraft, just as it does with another example of countering gravity.

A person throwing a ball is not that different from a rocket launching a satellite (although the former is usually somewhat less expensive and often involves fewer toxic chemicals). Both represent struggles against Earth’s gravitational pull. To throw a ball higher, you have to give it a harder push, imparting more energy to make it climb away from Earth, but as soon as it leaves your hand, it begins slowing. For a harder (faster) throw, it will take longer for Earth’s gravity to stop the ball and bring it back, so it will travel higher. But from the moment it leaves your hand until it reaches the top of its arc, its speed constantly dwindles as it gradually yields to Earth’s tug. The astronaut’s trip from the space station to the moon would be accomplished by starting with a high speed “throw” from the low starting orbit, and then slowing down until reaching the moon.

The rocket that launched Dawn threw it hard enough to escape from Earth, sending it well beyond the International Space Station and even the moon. Dawn’s maximum speed relative to Earth on launch day was so high that Earth could not pull it back. As we saw in the explanation of the launch profile, Dawn was propelled to 11.46 kilometers per second (25,640 mph), well in excess of the space station’s orbital speed given three paragraphs above. But it has remained under the sun’s control.

Now we can think of the general problem of flying elsewhere in space as similar to climbing a hill. For terrestrial hikers, the rewards of ascent come only after doing the work of pushing against Earth’s gravity to reach a higher elevation. Similarly, Dawn is climbing a solar system hill with the sun at the bottom. It started part way up the hill at Earth; and its first rewards were found at a higher elevation, where Vesta, traveling around the sun at only about two thirds of Earth’s speed, revealed its fascinating secrets to the visiting ship. The ion thrusting now is propelling it still higher up the hill toward Ceres, which moves even more slowly to balance the still-weaker pull of the sun.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal for more on how Dawn achieved orbital velocity


The Giant Asteroid: A Retrospective

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Mosaic of Dawn's images of asteroid Vesta
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft takes off for its next destination, this mosaic synthesizes some of the best views the spacecraft had of the giant asteroid Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA
› full image and caption

Dear Dawnt Look Backs,

Its long and daring interplanetary journey continuing smoothly, Dawn is making good progress in gradually reshaping its orbit around the sun. Its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system is gently bringing it closer to its next destination, dwarf planet Ceres, and ever farther from its previous one, Vesta. Although the robotic explorer’s sights are set firmly ahead, let’s take one last look back at the fascinating alien world it unveiled during its 14 months in orbit there.

Vesta, the second most massive resident of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, was discovered in 1807. For more than two centuries thereafter, the mysterious object appeared as little more than a fuzzy patch of light among the stars. The only one of the millions of main belt asteroids to be bright enough to be visible to the naked eye, Vesta beckoned, but its invitation was not answered until Dawn arrived in July 2011, nearly four years after it left distant Earth. The cosmic ambassador is the only spacecraft ever to have orbited an object in the main asteroid belt, and its ambitious mission would have been impossible without ion propulsion.

Dawn found a complex and exotic place, and it returned a fabulously rich collection of pictures and other measurements that will continue to be analyzed for many, many years. For now, we will simply touch on a very few of the many insights that already have been illuminated by the light of Dawn.

Scientists recognize Vesta as being more like a mini-planet than like the chips of rock most people think of as asteroids. The behemoth is 565 kilometers (351 miles) wide at the equator and has a surface area more than twice that of California (although it is populated by far fewer eccentrics, billionaires, and other colorful characters found in that state). Dawn’s measurements of the gravity field provide good evidence that Vesta separated into layers, much like Earth did as the planet was forming. Vesta’s dense core, composed principally of iron and nickel, may be 200 to 250 kilometers (125 to 150 miles) across. Surrounding that is the mantle, which in turn is covered by the veneer of the crust, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) thick. The once-molten core is now solid (in contrast to Earth’s, which remains hot enough to be liquid), but the differentiation into layers gives Vesta a key distinction from most asteroids. Because it was likely still in the process of accumulating material to become a full-sized planet when Jupiter’s immense gravity terminated its growth, scientists often refer to Vesta as a protoplanet.

Among the most prominent features of the alien landscape is a huge gouge out of the southern hemisphere so large that its presence was inferred from observations with the Hubble Space Telescope. Dawn found this gigantic crater to be even deeper and wider than expected, penetrating about 19 kilometers (12 miles) and spanning more than 500 kilometers (310 miles), or nearly 90 percent of the protoplanet’s equatorial diameter.

The yawning hole is now known as Rheasilvia, after the Vestal Virgin who not only was the mythical mother of Romulus and Remus, but also surely would have been astounded by the spectacular sights on Vesta as well as the spacecraft’s capability to point any user-defined body vector in a time-varying inertial direction defined by Chebyshev polynomials. As Dawn has brought Vesta into focus, cartographers have needed labels for the myriad features it has discovered. The International Astronomical Union names Vestan craters for Vestal Virgins and other famous Roman women; mountains, canyons, and other structures are named for towns and festivals associated with the Vestal Virgins.

Vesta dates to the dawn of the solar system, more than 4.5 billion years ago, and its age shows. Myriad craters tell the story of a timeworn surface that has been subjected to the rough and tumble conditions of life in the asteroid belt ever since. A virtual rain of space rocks has fallen upon it. While Rheasilvia records the most powerful punch, from an object as much as 50 kilometers (30 miles) across, there are at least seven craters, some quite ancient indeed, more than 150 kilometers (nearly 100 miles) in diameter. As the eons pass, craters degrade and become more difficult to discern, their crisp shapes eroded by subsequent impacts large and small.

The long history of cratering is particularly evident in the startling difference between the northern and southern hemispheres. The north is very densely cratered, but the south is not. Why? The titanic blow that carved out Rheasilvia is estimated to have occurred over one billion years ago. It excavated a tremendous volume of material. Much of it fell back to the surface, wiping it clean, so the cratering record had to start all over again. Recall that the crater itself is 500 kilometers (310 miles) in diameter, and scientists estimate that 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside the rim, the debris may have piled about 5 kilometers (3 miles) high. Even at greater distances, preexisting features would have been partially or completely erased by the thick accumulation. The effect did not reach to the northern hemisphere, however, so it retained the craters than had formed before this enormous impact.

Some of the rocks were ejected with so much energy that they broke free of Vesta’s gravitational grip, going into orbit around the sun. They then went their own way as they were yanked around by the gravitational forces of Jupiter and other bodies, and many of them eventually made it to the part of the solar system where your correspondent and some of his readers spend most of their time: Earth. When our planet’s gravity takes hold of one of these Vesta escapees, it pulls the rock into its atmosphere. Some lucky witness might even observe it as a meteor. Its blazing flight to the ground is not the end of its glory, however, for these rocks are prized by planetary geologists and other enthusiasts who want a souvenir from that impact.

Scientists now know that about 6 percent of the meteorites seen to fall to Earth originated on Vesta. Six percent! One of every 16 meteorites! This is an astonishingly large fraction. Apart from Mars and the moon, Vesta is the only known source of specific meteorites. Although rocks from Vesta had to travel much farther, they far outnumber meteorites from these other two more familiar celestial bodies.

Combining laboratory studies of the numerous samples of Vesta with Dawn’s measurements at the source provides an extraordinary opportunity to gain insights into the nature of that remote world. Meteorites from Vesta are so common that they are often displayed in museums (occasionally even without the curators’ awareness of their special history) and can be obtained from many vendors. Anyone who has seen or held one surely must be moved by contemplating its origin, so distant in space and time, from well beyond Mars and long before animal or plant life arose on Earth.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal for more Vesta history


The Giant Asteroid, Near and Far

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft departing asteroid Vesta
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft departing the giant asteroid Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dawn concluded 2012 almost 13,000 times farther from Vesta than it began the year. At that time, it was in its lowest orbit, circling the alien world at an average altitude of only 210 kilometers (130 miles), scrutinizing the mysterious protoplanet to tease out its secrets about the dawn of the solar system.

To conduct its richly detailed exploration, Dawn spent nearly 14 months in orbit around Vesta, bound by the behemoth’s gravitational grip. In September they bid farewell, as the adventurer gently escaped from the long embrace and slipped back into orbit around the sun. The spaceship is on its own again in the main asteroid belt, its sights set on a 2015 rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres. Its extensive ion thrusting is gradually enlarging its orbit and taking it ever farther from its erstwhile companion as their solar system paths diverge.

Meanwhile, on faraway Earth (and all the other locations throughout the cosmos where Dawnophiles reside), the trove of pictures and other precious measurements continue to be examined, analyzed, and admired by scientists and everyone else who yearns to glimpse distant celestial sights. And Earth itself, just as Vesta, Ceres, Dawn, and so many other members of the solar system family, continues to follow its own orbit around the sun.

Thanks to a coincidence of their independent trajectories, Earth and Dawn recently reached their smallest separation in well over a year, just as the tips of the hour hand and minute hand on a clock are relatively near every 65 minutes, 27 seconds. On Dec. 9, they were only 236 million kilometers (147 million miles) apart. Only? In human terms, this is not particularly close. Take a moment to let the immensity of their separation register. The International Space Station, for example, firmly in orbit around Earth, was 411 kilometers (255 miles) high that day, so our remote robotic explorer was 575 thousand times farther. If Earth were a soccer ball, the occupants of the orbiting outpost would have been a mere seven millimeters (less than a third of an inch) away. Our deep-space traveler would have been more than four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the ball. So although the planet and its extraterrestrial emissary were closer than usual, they were not in close proximity. Dawn remains extraordinarily far from all of its human friends and colleagues and the world they inhabit.

As the craft reshapes its solar orbit to match Ceres’s, it will wind up farther from the sun than it was while at Vesta. (As a reminder, see the table here that illustrates Dawn’s progress to each destination on its long interplanetary voyage.) We saw recently, however, that the route is complex, and the spacecraft is temporarily approaching the sun. Before the ship has had time to swing back out to a greater heliocentric range, Earth will have looped around again, and the two will briefly be even a little bit closer early in 2014. After that, however, they will never be so near each other again, as Dawn will climb higher and higher up the solar system hill, its quest for new and exciting knowledge of distant worlds taking it farther from the sun and hence from Earth.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal to learn how to approximate Dawn’s position in the sky on Jan. 21 and 22


Short Puffs Keep Dawn Chugging Along

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at Ceres
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft at its next target, the protoplanet Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Dawndroids,

Dawn is continuing to gently and patiently change its orbit around the sun. In September, it left Vesta, a complex and fascinating world it had accompanied for 14 months, and now the bold explorer is traveling to the largest world in the main asteroid belt, dwarf planet Ceres.

Dawn has spent most of its time since leaving Earth powering its way through the solar system atop a column of blue-green xenon ions emitted by its advanced ion propulsion system. Mission controllers have made some changes to Dawn’s operating profile in order to conserve its supply of a conventional rocket propellant known as hydrazine. Firing it through the small jets of the reaction control system helps the ship rotate or maintain its orientation in the zero-gravity of spaceflight. The flight team had already taken some special steps to preserve this precious propellant, and now they have taken further measures. If you remain awake after the description of what the changes are, you can read about the motivation for such frugality.

Dawn’s typical week of interplanetary travel used to include ion thrusting for almost six and two-thirds days. Then it would stop and slowly pirouette to point its main antenna to Earth for about eight hours. That would allow it to send to the giant antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network a full report on its health from the preceding week, including currents, voltages, temperatures, pressures, instructions it had executed, decisions it had made, and almost everything else save its wonderment at operating in the forbidding depths of space so fantastically far from its planet of origin. Engineers also used these communications sessions to radio updated commands to the craft before it turned once again to fire its ion thruster in the required direction.

Now operators have changed the pace of activities. Every turn consumes hydrazine, as the spacecraft expels a few puffs of propellant through some of its jets to start rotating and through opposing jets to stop. Instead of turning weekly, Dawn has been maintaining thrust for two weeks at a time, and beginning in January it will only turn to Earth once every four weeks. After more than five years of reliable performance, controllers have sufficient confidence in the ship to let it sail longer on its own. They have refined the number and frequency of measurements it records so that even with longer intervals of independence, the spacecraft can store the information engineers deem the most important to monitor.

Although contact is established through the main antenna less often, Dawn uses one of its three auxiliary antennas twice a week. Each of these smaller antennas produces a much broader signal so that even when one cannot be aimed directly at Earth, the Deep Space Network can detect its weak transmission. Only brief messages can be communicated this way, but they are sufficient to confirm that the distant ship remains healthy.

In addition to turning less often, Dawn now turns more slowly. Its standard used to be the same blinding pace at which the minute hand races around a clock (fasten your seat belt!). Engineers cut that in half two years ago but returned to the original value at the beginning of the Vesta approach phase. Now they have lowered it to one quarter of a minute hand’s rate. Dawn is patient, however. There’s no hurry, and the leisurely turns are much more hydrazine-efficient.

With these two changes, the robotic adventurer will arrive at Ceres in 2015 with about half of the 45.6-kilogram (101-pound) hydrazine supply it had when it rocketed away from Cape Canaveral on a lovely September dawn in 2007. Mission planners will be able to make excellent use of it as they guide the probe through its exploration of the giant of the main asteroid belt.

Any limited resource should be consumed responsibly, whether on a planet or on a spaceship. Hydrazine is not the only resource that Dawn’s controllers manage carefully, but let’s recall why this one has grown in importance recently.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal


Dawn Comes Closer to Go Farther

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at Ceres
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft at its next target, the protoplanet Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Indawnspensable Readers,

Dawn is making good progress on the second segment of its cosmic travels. Following more than a year of arduous but sensationally productive and exciting work revealing the fascinating character of the giant protoplanet Vesta, it is now patiently pursuing its next target, the mysterious dwarf planet Ceres, which resides farther from the sun. For the second (and final) time in its interplanetary journey, however, Dawn is about to turn around, going closer to the sun rather than farther away.

In August 2008, we saw in detail how it could be that even as the bold explorer travels outward in the solar system from Earth, past Mars, to Vesta, and then on to Ceres, it could occasionally appear to reverse course temporarily. We present here a shorter explanation for those readers who did not memorize the log explaining this perplexing behavior (you know who you are, and we do as well, but your secret remains safe under the terms of our reader privacy agreement).

Dawn orbits the sun, as do Vesta, Ceres, the other residents of the main asteroid belt, and the planets. All orbits, whether of these objects around the star at the center of our solar system, artificial satellites or the moon in orbit around Earth, or even Dawn when it was in orbit around Vesta, are ellipses (like flattened circles). Earth, for example, orbits the sun at an average distance of 150 million kilometers (93.0 million miles), which astronomers call one astronomical unit (AU). During its year-long revolution, however, our planet comes in to 0.98 AU from the sun and goes out to 1.02 AU. Earthlings manage quite nicely with these small variations. (Note that the seasons are not caused by the changes in distance but instead are a result of the tilt of Earth’s axis and thus the differing angles at which the warming rays of the sun arrive during the year. If the sun’s distance were all that mattered, the northern and southern hemispheres would have the same seasons.) So, orbiting bodies move smoothly between a minimum and a maximum range from their gravitational masters rather than remaining at a constant distance.

When Dawn was in orbit around Vesta, it accompanied that world on its regular journey around the sun. The table last month showing the probe’s progress over the five years of its deep space trek reminds us that Vesta’s path brings it as close to the sun as 2.15 AU and takes it out to 2.57 AU.

If Dawn had remained in orbit around Vesta, it would have continued to follow the same elliptical course as its host in the asteroid belt. The pair would have reached their maximum solar distance next month and then would have fallen back to 2.15 AU in September 2014. While visiting Vesta was extremely gratifying, this explorer’s ambitions are greater. It broke free of Vesta’s grip, its sights set on a new and distant alien destination.

Now the spacecraft is in its own independent orbit around the sun, and the persistent but gentle pressure of its advanced ion propulsion system gradually reshapes that orbit. At any moment, the orbit is an ellipse, and an instant later, it is a slightly different ellipse, courtesy of the thrust. As Dawn departed from Vesta only last month, its orbit is not yet dramatically different, but over the course of the coming years, the effect of the thrusting will be to change the orbit tremendously. To reach Ceres in 2015, the ship will enlarge and tip its elliptical course to match the motion of the dwarf planet around the sun. (Some of the parameters characterizing each object’s orbit are shown here.)

Although the ship’s orbit is growing, it will reach the current high point on Nov. 1. It will then be 2.57 AU from the sun and, just as in 2008 (albeit at a smaller distance), it will begin moving closer, even as it continues to thrust.

If Dawn stopped thrusting on Nov. 1, its elliptical orbit would carry it down to 2.19 AU from the sun in September 2014. That’s a higher orbit than Vesta’s but still well below what it needs to be for the rendezvous with Ceres. Astute readers have already anticipated that the plan is not to stop thrusting but to continue reworking the trajectory, just as a ceramicist gradually achieves a desired shape to create the envisioned artistic result. The ongoing thrusting will raise the low point of the orbit, so if the ship follows the flight plan, it will descend only to 2.45 AU in October 2013 before sailing outward again. By May 2014 it will have risen to the same solar altitude as it is now. All the thrusting in the interim will have altered its course so much, however, that it will not turn around then; rather, it will continue ascending to keep its 2015 appointment with Ceres.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal