NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is less than four 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.
Three and a half years after launch, Dawn continues its travels around the sun, maneuvering to take the same orbital path as Vesta. Following its usual pattern, the spacecraft has spent most of the past month gently thrusting with its ion propulsion system. Some of the thrusting this month, however, was not designed to propel Dawn to Vesta. In addition, mission controllers stopped the thrusting to conduct other planned activities.
Spacecraft that use conventional propulsion coast through space most of the time, just as the moon coasts around Earth, and the planets and asteroids coast around the sun. In contrast, Dawn is in powered flight most of the time, using its ion propulsion system to change its orbit. The flight plan requires pointing the ion thruster in just the right direction to deliver the adventurer to its destination. The spacecraft orientation needed to aim the thruster ends up pointing the main antenna in an arbitrary direction. We have seen before that the robotic craft interrupts thrusting for about eight hours each week to direct the antenna toward Earth for communications.
Ever since Dawn’s trajectory was first being designed, long before launch, it has included coast periods for activities that require orientations incompatible with routine thrusting. One such period was the week of March 14; the previous was in July 2010.
Engineers and scientists operate the science instruments about twice each year to ensure they remain in good condition. This time was the last scheduled use of the sensors prior to their observations of Vesta. All tests showed they are in excellent condition and ready to expose the mysteries of the world they are about to visit.
Controllers transmitted upgraded software to each of the two identical science cameras, containing a few improvements over the version installed in July. The procedure went as smoothly as it had for previous software updates, including the first time such an operation was performed. After each camera received its new software, it performed its standard routine of exercises, just as it did only three weeks after reaching space. The tests confirmed that each camera’s electronics, optics, detector, cover, and filter wheel are in perfect condition.
Sometimes the spacecraft is turned to aim the cameras at carefully selected astronomical targets for their tests; other times, they take pictures of whatever stars happen to be in their field of view. This month’s tests were of the latter type, in which the orientation of the spacecraft was set to keep the antenna pointed at Earth. That put stars from a region near the border between Pisces and Cetus in the grasp of the cameras, quite appropriate for a ship voyaging across the cosmic ocean on its way to a distant and unfamiliar land.