NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is less than three months away from getting into orbit around its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta. Each month, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares an update on the mission’s progress.
Dear Dawntalizingly Close Readers,
Dawn is on the threshold of a new world. After more than three and a half years of interplanetary travel covering in excess of 2.6 billion kilometers (1.6 billion miles), we are closing in on our first destination. Dawn is starting its approach to Vesta.
The interplanetary cruise phase of the mission ends today and the 15-month Vesta phase begins. The first three months are the “approach phase,” during which the spacecraft maneuvers to its first science orbit. Many of the activities during approach were discussed in detail in March and April last year, and now we are about to see those plans put into action.
The beginning of the phase is marked by the first images of the alien world Dawn has been pursuing since it left Earth. Vesta will appear as little more than a smudge, a small fuzzy blob in the science camera’s first pictures. But navigators will analyze where it shows up against the background stars to help pin down the location of the spacecraft relative to its target. To imagine how this works, suppose that distant trees are visible through a window in your house. If someone gave you a photo that had been taken through that window, you could determine where the photographer (Dawn) had been standing by lining up the edge of the window (Vesta) with the pattern of the background trees (stars). Because navigators know the exact position of each star, they can calculate where Dawn and Vesta are relative to each other. This process will be repeated as the craft closes in on Vesta, which ultimately will provide a window to the dawn of the solar system.
Even though the mysterious orb is still too far away to reveal new features, it will be exciting to receive these first pictures. During the approach phase, images will be released in periodic batches, with priority viewing for residents of Earth. The flow will be more frequent thereafter. For most of the two centuries that Vesta has been studied, it has been little more than a pinpoint of light. Interrupting thrusting once a week this month to glimpse its protoplanetary destination, Dawn will watch it grow from about five pixels across to 12. By June, the images should be comparable to the tantalizing views obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope. As the approach phase continues and the distance diminishes, the focus will grow still sharper and new details will appear in each subsequent set of images.