Posts Tagged ‘NASA missions’

Slice of History: Viking Stereo Viewer

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

By Julie Cooper

Each month in “Slice of History” we feature a historical photo from the JPL Archives. See more historical photos and explore the JPL Archives at

Viking Stereo ViewerViking Stereo Viewer — Photograph Number 324-1954

This interactive computer-based stereo viewing system was used to analyze Mars topography images generated by the cameras on NASA’s Viking 1 Mars lander. Two 17-inch video monitors faced a scanning stereoscope mounted between them on a table. Left and right lander camera image data were sent to the left and right monitors. Panning controls on the stereoscope helped align one image with the other to create a stereo image, 640 by 512 pixels in size. A mouse was used for finely controlled rotation of the monitors. An article about the system described a prototype mouse, used before this photo was taken in 1976. “The track ball is a baseball-sized sphere protruding from the top of a retaining box and capable of being rotated freely and indefinitely about its center …”

The resulting images could be displayed on additional monitors and were used to create contour maps and other images that aided lander surface operations. The system was developed by Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

This post was written for “Historical Photo of the Month,” a blog by Julie Cooper of JPL’s Library and Archives Group.

Dawn Sets Its Sights on Ceres

Monday, July 30th, 2012

By Marc Rayman

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft investigates its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

near-true color image of the remarkable snowman feature on asteroid Vesta's surface
Three impact craters of different sizes, arranged in the shape of a snowman, make up one of the most striking features on Vesta, as seen in this view from NASA’s Dawn mission. In this view the three “snowballs” are upside down, so that the shadows make the features easily recognizable. North is to the lower right in the image, which has a resolution of 230 feet (70 meters) per pixel. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dear Dawnpartures,

Dawn has completed the final intensive phase of its extraordinary exploration of Vesta, and it has now begun its gradual departure. Propelled by its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system, the probe is spiraling ever higher, reversing the winding path it followed into orbit last year.

In the previous log (which gained prominence last month by making it into the list of the top 78 logs ever written on this ambitious interplanetary adventure), we saw the plan for mapping Vesta from an altitude of 680 kilometers (420 miles). In this second high-altitude mapping orbit (HAMO2), the spacecraft circled the alien world beneath it every 12.3 hours. On the half of each orbit that it was on the day side, it photographed the dramatic scenery. As it passed over the night side, it beamed the precious pictures to the distant planet where its human controllers (and many of our readers) reside. Tirelessly repeating this strategy while Vesta rotated allowed Dawn’s camera to observe the entirety of the illuminated land every five days.

The robot carried out its complex itinerary flawlessly, completely mapping the surface six times. Four of the maps were made not by pointing the camera straight down at the rocky, battered ground but rather at an angle. Combining the different perspectives of each map, scientists have a rich set of stereo images, allowing a full three dimensional view of the terrain that bears the scars of more than 4.5 billion years in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn also mapped Vesta six times during the first high-altitude mapping orbit (HAMO1) in September and October 2011. The reason for mapping it again is that Vesta has seasons, and they progress more slowly than on Earth. Now it is almost northern hemisphere spring, so sunlight is finally reaching the high latitudes, which were under an impenetrable cloak of darkness throughout most of Dawn’s residence here.

For most of the two centuries this mysterious orb had been studied from Earth, it was perceived as little more than a small fuzzy blob in the night sky. With the extensive imaging from HAMO1 and HAMO2, as well as from the low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO, earthlings now know virtually all of the protoplanet’s landscape in exquisite detail.

Among the prizes for the outstanding performance in HAMO2 are more than 4,700 pictures. In addition to the comprehensive mapping, Dawn collected nearly nine million spectra with its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) to help scientists determine more about the nature of the minerals. This phenomenal yield is well over twice that of HAMO1, illustrating the great benefit of dedicating valuable observation time in HAMO2 to VIR before the mapping.

Dawn’s measurements of the peaks and valleys, twists and turns of Vesta’s gravity field, from which scientists can map the distribution of material in the interior of the behemoth, were at their best in LAMO. That low altitude also was where the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) obtained its finest data, revealing the atomic constituents of the surface and subsurface. Indeed, the motivation for undertaking the challenging descent to LAMO was for those investigations, although the bonus pictures and spectra greatly enhanced the reward. Even in HAMO2, however, gravity and GRaND studies continued, adding to an already fabulous bounty.

Mission controllers have continued to keep the distant spacecraft very busy, making the most of its limited time at Vesta. Pausing neither to rest nor to marvel or delight in its own spectacular accomplishments, when the robot finished radioing the last of its HAMO2 data to Earth, it promptly devoted its attention to the next task: ion thrusting.

Missions that use conventional propulsion coast almost all of the time, but long-time readers know that Dawn has spent most of its nearly five years in deep space thrusting with its advanced ion propulsion system, the exotic and impressive technology it inherited from NASA’s Deep Space 1. Without ion propulsion, the exploration already accomplished would have been unaffordable for NASA’s Discovery Program and the unique exploit to orbit both Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres would have been quite impossible. Ion propulsion not only enables the spacecraft to orbit residents of the main asteroid belt, something no other probe has attempted, but it also allows the interplanetary spaceship to maneuver extensively while at each destination, thus tailoring the orbits for the different investigations.

On July 25 at 9:45 a.m. PDT, as it has well over 500 times before, the sophisticated craft began emitting a beam of high-velocity xenon ions. In powered flight once again, it is now raising its orbital altitude. On August 26, the ship will be too far and traveling too fast for Vesta’s gravity to maintain its hold. Dawn will slip back into orbit around the sun with its sights set on Ceres.

Although HAMO2 is complete, the spacecraft will suspend thrusting four times to direct its instruments at Vesta during the departure phase, much as it did in the approach phase. The approach pictures aided in navigation and provided tantalizing views of the quarry we had been seeking for so long. This time, however, we will see a familiar world receding rather than an unfamiliar one approaching. But as the sun creeps north, advancing by about three quarters of a degree of latitude per week, the changing illumination around the north pole will continue to expose new features.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal

Dawn Goes Over ‘n’ Out

Monday, June 4th, 2012

By Marc Rayman

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft investigates its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Images of the giant asteroid Vesta taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft in 2011 and 2012
On May 3, 2011, the mapping camera on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft captured its first image (left) of the giant asteroid Vesta. Only 5 pixels across, the image didn’t provide any new information about the asteroid, but it was important for navigation purposes and provided an exciting first look at Dawn’s eventual target. About five months later, Dawn snapped the much more detailed image on the right from only 700 kilometers (435 miles) from the surface of Vesta and has since provided unparalleled views of the mysterious world. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Readers of all Dawnominations,

Far from Earth, on the opposite side of the sun, deep in the asteroid belt, Dawn is gradually spiraling around the giant protoplanet Vesta. Under the gentle pressure of its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system, the explorer is scaling the gravitational mountain from its low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) to its second high-altitude mapping orbit (HAMO2).

Dawn spent nearly five months in LAMO, circling the rocky world at an average altitude of 210 kilometers (130 miles) as it acquired a fabulous bounty of pictures; visible, infrared, neutron, and gamma ray spectra; and measurements of the gravity field. As we saw last month, the probe was far more productive in each investigation than the ambitious team members had expected or had ever dared hope it would be. With that outstanding success behind it, it is looking ahead and up to its work in HAMO2, about 680 kilometers (420 miles) high.

Dawn is the first spacecraft to explore Vesta, the second most massive resident of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Indeed, this is the only craft ever to orbit a body in the asteroid belt. No other missions are currently on the books to visit this remote, exotic world, which is now appreciated to be more closely related to the terrestrial planets (including Earth) than to typical asteroids. And now Dawn is receding from it. On May 1, it began the slow ascent to its next observation orbit. It may well be decades before another robotic ambassador from Earth comes as close to Vesta as this bold traveler has.

Humankind’s first exploration of Vesta has been exceptionally rewarding. A simple measure of that can be seen with just two photographs. More than two centuries after its discovery, this giant asteroid was first glimpsed by the approaching spaceship from Earth on May 3, 2011. From a distance of 1.2 million kilometers (750 thousand miles), or more than three times the separation between Earth and the moon, Dawn’s mapping camera perceived Vesta as only five pixels across. Each pixel spanned more than 110 kilometers (70 miles), revealing nothing new compared to what astronomers’ most powerful telescopes had shown (but the image was of importance for navigation purposes). Nevertheless, at the time, it was tremendously exciting to obtain the first views of a distant, unfamiliar shore after a voyage of more than 2.6 billion kilometers (1.6 billion miles) on the interplanetary ocean. Sighting our first celestial port of call more than three and a half years after this cosmic adventure began was thrilling indeed. But now, with more than 25 thousand spectacular photos in hand from much smaller distances, it is even more gratifying to acknowledge that first picture as one of the worst ever taken of Vesta. The Image of the Day from one year later
was acquired in October 2011 from 1,700 times closer; and most of the images have been obtained from LAMO, about 5,700 times nearer than that first one. Dawn has rapidly transformed Vesta from a mere fleck among the stars into a fascinating, complex and splendidly detailed world.

Keeping the remote vessel on the planned spiraling course from one mapping orbit to another presents the crew with a set of formidable challenges, but this team has accomplished the maneuvers to successively reach survey orbit, the first high-altitude mapping orbit (HAMO1) and LAMO. The current orbital transfer is complex and demanding, but it is proceeding very well. Controllers update the flight profile every few days to ensure the probe stays close to the carefully designed trajectory to HAMO2. To gain a sense of the progress, go here for your correspondent’s atypically succinct weekly summaries of the spiral status.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal

Highs and Lows of Exploring the Giant Asteroid

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

By Marc Rayman

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft investigates its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

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

Dear Ups and Dawns,

Dawn is continuing its exploits at Vesta, performing detailed studies of the colossal asteroid from its low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). The robotic ambassador is operating extremely well on behalf of the creatures it represents on a distant planet. On this second intercalary day of its ambitious adventure, the spacecraft is doing exactly what it was designed to do: exploring a previously uncharted alien world.

Although we usually describe LAMO as being at an average altitude of 210 kilometers (130 miles), that does not mean it is at a constant altitude. As we saw on the fourth anniversary of Dawn’s departure from Earth, there are two reasons the spacecraft’s height changes. One is that the elevation of the surface itself changes, so if the probe flew in a perfect circle around Vesta, its altitude would vary according to the topography. Like the planet from which Dawn embarked upon its deep space journey in 2007 (and even some of the residents there), Vesta is broadest near its equator, and that is where the ground generally reaches its greatest distance from the center. In addition, the ancient surface, battered over billions of years in the rough and tumble of the asteroid belt, displays remarkable variations in shape. The giant Rheasilvia basin is a scar from an extraordinary impact that excavated a region encompassing the south pole more than 500 kilometers (over 300 miles) in diameter. This immense gouge has left that part of Vesta at a much lower elevation than elsewhere. In the center of the enormous depression is the second tallest mountain known in the solar system, soaring to well over twice the height of Mt. Everest. The vertical range from the highest locations near the equator to the bottoms of the deepest craters within Rheasilvia is more than 60 kilometers (37 miles). So as Dawn loops around in just over four hours, the surface underneath it rises and falls dramatically.

The second reason is that the orbit itself is not exactly a circle. Let’s ignore for a moment the effect of the topography and focus solely on the shape of the craft’s path around Vesta. As Vesta rotates and Dawn revolves, the gravitational forces acting on the orbiter are always changing because of the irregular distribution of material inside the geologically complex protoplanet. This effect occurred at the higher altitudes as well, but it was much less pronounced there. Now that the adventurer is deep in the gravity field, the peaks and valleys of its own motion are magnified.

Navigators were very careful in choosing the parameters for LAMO, recognizing that the orbital waters were turbulent. Nevertheless, their mapping of the gravitational currents proved quite accurate, and the spacecraft has followed the planned course quite well. The lengthy and relatively technical discussions in the two previous logs described why the ship drifts off a little, but operators occasionally nudge it back with the ion propulsion system.

Orbits usually are best described by ellipses, like flattened circles. Now Vesta’s bumpy gravity field does not allow perfectly smooth, regular orbits at low altitude. Moreover, the variations in the strength of the gravitational attraction transform the orbits. Sometimes, the difference between the high point of a loop and the low point is less than 16 kilometers (10 miles). As the changing forces reshape the orbit, the ellipse gets more exaggerated, with the low points going lower and the high points going higher. The differences within one revolution grow to be more than 75 kilometers (47 miles). Thanks to the ingenious design of the orbital trajectory however, those same forces then will gradually attenuate the profile, causing it to become more round again. This pattern repeats every 11.5 days in LAMO. It is almost as if the orbit breathes slowly, its envelope expanding and contracting.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal

A Look Inside Dawn’s Grand Asteroid Adventure

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

By Marc Rayman

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft investigates its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Image of asteroid Vesta taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft from low altitude mapping orbit, or LAMO
The south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta, as imaged by the framing camera on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft in September 2011. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA |
› Full image and caption

Dear Asdawnished Readers,

Dawn is scrutinizing Vesta from its low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO), circling the rocky world five and a half times a day. The spacecraft is healthy and continuing its intensive campaign to reveal the astonishing nature of this body in the mysterious depths of the main asteroid belt.

Since the last log, the robotic explorer has devoted most of its time to its two primary scientific objectives in this phase of the mission. With its gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND), it has been patiently measuring Vesta’s very faint nuclear emanations. These signals reveal the atomic constituents of the material near the surface. Dawn also broadcasts a radio beacon with which navigators on distant Earth can track its orbital motion with exquisite accuracy. That allows them to measure Vesta’s gravity field and thereby infer the interior structure of this complex world. In addition to these top priorities, the spacecraft is using its camera and its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) to obtain more detailed views than they could in the higher orbits.

As we have delved into these activities in detail in past logs, let’s consider here some more aspects of controlling this extremely remote probe as it peers down at the exotic colossus 210 kilometers (130 miles) beneath it.

Well, the first aspect that is worth noting is that it is incredibly cool! Continuing to bring this fascinating extraterrestrial orb into sharper focus is thrilling, and everyone who is moved by humankind’s bold efforts to reach into the cosmos shares in the experience. As a reminder, you can see the extraordinary sights Dawn has by going here for a new image every weekday, each revealing another intriguing aspect of the diverse landscape.

The data sent back are providing exciting and important new insights into Vesta, and those findings will continue to be announced in press releases. Therefore, we will turn our attention to a second aspect of operating in LAMO. Last month, we saw that various forces contribute to Dawn moving slightly off its planned orbital path. (That material may be worth reviewing, either to enhance appreciation of what follows or as an efficacious soporific, should the need for one ever arise.) Now let’s investigate some of the consequences. This will involve a few more technical points than most logs, but each will be explained, and together they will help illustrate one of the multitudinous complexities that must be overcome to make such a grand adventure successful.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal

Mission Control to Mars: Launching the Next Mars Rover

Monday, November 28th, 2011

By Rob Manning

In the wee morning hours of Nov. 26, 2011, scientists and engineers gathered in the mission control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to help launch the next Mars rover, Curiosity. The mission’s chief engineer, Rob Manning, shares the developing story from the control room as tensions and excitement for a mission eight years in the making reached all new heights.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, sealed inside its payload fairing atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, sealed inside its payload fairing atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, launched on Nov. 26 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

5:45 a.m. PST (L-01:17:00)
I drove in this morning at 4:30 a.m. As usual, I was greeted by the cheery guards at the gate along with a small family of local deer, who keep sentry over a small patch of greenery at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

I quickly march into JPL’s mission control area to find the first shift quietly following the prelaunch procedure in sync with the Assembly, Test and Launch Operations (ATLO) procedure. They had been on station since 1:30 a.m. I tried that procedure at last week’s launch rehearsal and found the hour a bit unpleasant. Today, I am working on the Anomaly Response Team (ART) for post-launch anomalies. This means that if all goes well, I will have little to do but cheer when NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover launches. I have my own console where I can monitor both the spacecraft and listen to the voice nets (there are 10 of them!).

There are about 30 people here. Usually there are not as many, but today we have two people for every subsystem: power, thermal, propulsion, systems, fault protection, attitude control and management. I can hear the JPL ATLO test conductor, Art Thompson, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida double check that the right sequence files have been sent. One in particular has commands that tell the rover when to automatically transition into “eclipse” mode. This software mode puts the entire vehicle into the configuration needed for the period prior to separation from the Centaur. In particular this mode turns on the descent stage and cruise stage tank heaters. This timer should be set about 15 minutes after launch, which is planned for 7:02 am PST today. It is an absolute time so they have to send a new time every time we have a new launch attempt. The voice net that is the most interesting is the launch vehicle’s fueling operations. I have not heard that one before. They are more than 50 percent of the way through fueling!

It is fun to see the crowd here. No dress code, but some have come in ties, others with pink mohawks. Nice combo. Professionals all. The peanuts have already made the rounds.

6:15 a.m. (L-00:47:00)
Brian Portock, today’s flight director at JPL, just finished the launch poll of the room to see if everyone is go for transition to launch mode. This is a command to the rover that will put everything on the rover into a mode that is used for the first 15 minutes of flight. In particular, the heaters are all put into a launch and cruise configuration. We expect that the cruise stage heaters will be on more than off due to the air conditioning needed to keep the spacecraft cool (hot generators, you know).

6:29 a.m. (L-00:33:00)
Arm pyros! Once these relays are closed, they will be that way for the next 8.5 months.

6:32 a.m. (L-00:30:00)
The data rate is lowered to launch nominal to 200 bits per second. This will allow the rover’s data to flow to both the ground (via wires to the power van at the foot of the launch pad that provides power to the rover before launch) and to the launch vehicle where it will be available throughout launch (very cool). The JPL management showed up. Charles Elachi is behind me. My old friend and JPL Chief Engineer Brian Muirhead is here with his family.

6:40 a.m. (L-00:22:00)
The flight director is doing the launch poll for the team here at JPL: “All stations at JPL report go.” ATLO is going through its poll at lightening speed. All stations go. This is going fast! The weather guys report of scattered skies at 5,000 feet looks good. I am getting excited.

6:47 a.m. (L-00:15:00)
We lost the flow of data from MSL via the Atlas Space Flight Operations Center (ASOC) land lines, but they switch it to the radio path from the launch vehicle, and it starts flowing again.

7:00 a.m. (L-00:02:00)
All Quiet. Peanuts going around the room again … everyone is excited!

7:01 a.m. (L-00:01:20)
Everything is armed …

7:01 a.m. (L-00:00:30)

7:03 a.m. (L+00:01:00)

7:06 a.m. (L+00:04:00)
Fairing falls off! Wind on MSL ;)

7:07 a.m. (L+00:05:00)
Rob Zimmerman, our power systems engineer, reports power on solar arrays! 3.3 x 2 = 6. 7 amps! The spacecraft is still power-negative for a while which means that the battery is still discharging. We need more sunlight - very soon.

7:11 a.m. (L+00:09:00)
Getting intermittent data from the rover via the Centaur. So far, no computer reboots!

7:12 a.m. (L+00:10:00)
The ATLO test conductor reports that they are done building and launching MSL (hey, it took ‘em long enough! ;) ). We all cheer and smile. They are supporting the cruise team now.

7:14 a.m. (L+00:12:00)
We’ve reached the end of the first burn (MECO1). All is well. Eighteen minutes to second burn. Battery is charging at 4.3 amps for each battery — very good.

7:17 a.m. (L+00:15:00)
The eclipse-mode transition should be done; don’t know yet. Got it. The tank heaters should be on now; They are. Batteries are still charging at 95 percent state of charge (SOC).

7:35 a.m. (L+00:33:00)
Waiting for telemetry from over Africa …

7:36 a.m. (L+00:34:00)
It’s five minutes to MECO2, pushing out of Earth orbit. Heavy rover! KEEP PUSHING! Mars awaits.

7:39 a.m. (L+00:37:00)
The spacecraft is nearly out of Earth orbit, six minutes until separation from Centaur upper stage. Everyone is relaxed, but there’s not a lot of data from the rover. It still says it is in launch mode — missed the data that said eclipse.

7:42 a.m. (L+00:40:00)
MECO2. next is turn to separation attitude and spin up. Separation! We get a beautiful view of MSL spinning away from us — in the right attitude and the right direction! (› See Video)

Video: The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft separates from the upper stage of its Atlas V launch vehicle and heads on its way to Mars.
› See video

7:53 a.m. (L+00:51:00)
We have lock from NASA’s Deed Space Network in Canberra, Australia!

8:07 a.m. (L+01:05:00)
Data-slowing coming … All looks good, batteries at 98 percent. The rover is now in cruise mode. The heaters are on and cycling as designed. The spacecraft is spinning at 2.5 rotations per minute with only 1 degree of nutation (or swaying) — that is not a lot. The Atlas and Centaur did a fantastic job! The generator is working.

8:26 a.m. (L+01:24:00)
Now let’s try the uplink (sweep). Sweep is working! We have strong signals both ways. We are getting two-way Doppler - navigation says that the frequency is just a few hertz off so we had a very nominal injection to solar orbit. We can command!

Everyone is relaxed and trying to see if there is anything that looks wrong, but so far, nothing. Everything is fine. This is weird. Our bird is on its way - it’s where it belongs. We are happy to be in a completely new mode. No more last-minute fixes (to anything but the software). We have a lot to do, but at least our bird is on its way.

Asteroid Vesta, All in the Details

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

By Marc Rayman

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft investigates its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Image of the giant asteroid Vesta by Dawn
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on September 20, 2011. This image was taken through the camera’s clear filter. The distance to the surface of Vesta is 673 km and the image resolution is about 66 meters per pixel. Image credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA
› Full image and caption

Dear Dawnderfuls,

Dawn has completed another wonderfully successful phase of its exploration of Vesta, studying it in unprecedented detail during the past month. From the time of its discovery more than two centuries ago until just a few months ago, this protoplanet appeared as hardly more than a fuzzy blob, an indistinct fleck in the sky. Now Dawn has mapped it with exquisite clarity, revealing a fascinatingly complex alien world.

The high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO) includes the most intensive and thorough imaging of the entire year Dawn will reside at Vesta. Spectacular as the results from survey orbit were, the observations from HAMO are significantly better. From four times closer to the surface, Dawn’s sensors provided much better views of the extraordinary surface of craters large and small, tremendous mountains, valleys, towering cliffs, ridges, smooth and flat regions, gently rolling plains, systems of extensive troughs, many clusters of smaller grooves, immense landslides, enormous boulders, materials that are unusually bright and others that are unusually dark (sometimes adjacent to each other), and myriad other dramatic and intriguing features. There is no reason to try to capture in words what visual creatures like humans can best appreciate in pictures. To see the sites, which literally are out of this world, either go to Vesta or go here.

Circling the colossus 680 kilometers (420 miles) beneath it in HAMO, the probe has spent most of its time over the illuminated side taking pictures and other scientific measurements and most of the time over the dark side beaming its precious findings back to eager Earthlings.

Dawn revolves in a polar orbit around Vesta, passing above the north pole, then traveling over the day side to the south pole, and then soaring north over the night side. Each circuit takes 12.3 hours. Meanwhile, Vesta completes a rotation on its axis every 5.3 hours. Mission planners choreographed this beautiful cosmic pas de deux by choosing the orbital parameters so that in 10 orbits, nearly every part of the lit surface would come within the camera’s field of view. (Because it is northern hemisphere winter on that world, a region around the north pole is hidden in the deep dark of night. Its appearance in Dawn’s pictures will have to wait for HAMO2.) A set of 10 orbits is known to Dawn team members (and now to you) as a mapping cycle.

Although the HAMO phase was extremely complex, it was executed almost flawlessly, following remarkably well the intricate plan worked out in great detail last year. It consisted of six mapping cycles, and they were conducted in order of their overall importance. In the first cycle, Dawn aimed its camera straight down and took pictures with all of the instrument’s color filters. In addition to showing the startling diversity of exotic features, the color images provide scientists some information about the composition of the surface materials, which display an impressive variation on this mysterious protoplanet. Cycle 1 yielded more than 2500 photos of Vesta, nearly as many as were acquired in the entire survey orbit phase. These observations were deemed so important that not only were they first, but cycle 6 was designed to acquire nearly the same data. This strategy was formulated so that if problems precluded the successful mapping in cycle 1, there would be a second chance without requiring the small and busy operations team to make new plans. As it turned out, there were only minor glitches that interfered with some of the pictures in cycle 1, but the losses were not important. Nevertheless, cycle 6 did fill in most of the missing views.

Cycles 2 through 5 were devoted to acquiring images needed to develop a topographical map. Instead of flying over the sunlit side with its camera pointed straight down, the spacecraft looked at an angle. Each direction was chosen to provide scientists the best combination of perspective and illumination to build up a three dimensional picture of the surface. Knowing the elevations of different features and the angles of slopes is essential to understanding the geological processes that shaped them.

In cycle 2, the camera constantly was directed at the terrain ahead and a little to the left of the point directly below the spacecraft. Cycle 3, in contrast, looked back and slightly to the left. Cycle 4 pointed straight ahead but by a smaller angle than in cycle 2. Cycle 5 did not look forward or backwards; it only observed the surface to the right. With the extensive stereo coverage in each of these 10-orbit mapping cycles, most of the terrain now has been photographed from enough different directions that the detailed shape of the alien landscape can be determined.

The HAMO observations constitute the most comprehensive visible mapping of Vesta for the mission. The survey orbit images were obtained from a higher altitude and so do not show as much detail. When Dawn flies down to its low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO), its primary objectives will be to measure the atomic constituents with the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) and to map the gravitational field. While some images will be acquired, they will be a secondary objective. The principal resources, both for the spacecraft and for the operations team, will be devoted to the higher priority science. In addition, the probe will be too close in LAMO for its camera to collect enough pictures for a global map. The subsequent observations in HAMO2 will be designed mostly to glimpse some of the northern latitudes that are currently too dark to see.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal

Dawn Sets its Sights, and Lens, on Vesta

Friday, June 24th, 2011

By Marc Rayman

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is less than one month 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.

Image of the giant asteroid Vesta from Dawn's approach
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained this image on its approach to the protoplanet Vesta, the second-most massive object in the main asteroid belt. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/PSI. › See more images

Dear Dawnstinations,

Vesta beckons, and Dawn responds. Now more than halfway through its approach to Vesta, Dawn continues creeping up on the destination it has been pursuing since it began its interplanetary travels. The separation between them gradually shrinks as the probe’s ion thrusting brings its orbit around the sun into a closer and closer match with Vesta’s. At the same time, the giant protoplanet’s gravity tugs gently on the approaching ship, luring it into orbit.

Starting at the beginning of the approach phase on May 3, Dawn interrupted thrusting once a week to photograph Vesta against the background stars. These images help navigators determine exactly where the probe is relative to its target. This technique does not replace other means of navigation but rather supplements them. One of the principal methods of establishing the spacecraft’s trajectory relies on accurately timing how long it takes radio signals, traveling, as all readers know, at the universal limit of the speed of light, to make the round trip between Earth and Dawn. Another uses the Doppler shift of the radio waves, or the slight change in pitch caused by the craft’s motion. These sensitive measurements remain essential to navigating the faraway ship as it sails the interplanetary seas.

Despite the very slow approach, the distance is small enough now that observing Vesta weekly is no longer sufficient. To achieve the navigational accuracy required to reach the intended orbit in early August, last week the frequency of imaging was increased to twice per week. In each session, half of the pictures are taken with long exposures to ensure many stars are detectable, thus overexposing the much brighter disc of the nearby Vesta. The other half use short exposures to ensure that the rocky world shows up correctly so its precise location can be measured. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer has been commanded to observe Vesta during three of these sessions, each time providing valuable information that will help scientists select instrument settings for when Dawn is close enough to begin its detailed scientific measurements.

In addition to the regular campaign of imaging for navigation, mission controllers have other plans in store for the approach phase that were laid out more than a year ago. Twice in the next few weeks, the spacecraft will watch Vesta throughout its complete 5.3-hour rotation on its axis, revealing exciting new perspectives on this uncharted body. The explorer also will search for moons of the alien world.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s June 23, 2011 Dawn Journal

The Power of the Solar Arrays

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

By Marc Rayman

Diagram showing the solar arrays of the Rosetta and Dawn spacecraft

Recently, one of our fans on the NASAJPL Facebook page asked a good question about the efficiency of solar arrays on the Dawn and Rosetta spacecraft.

“A question about Dr. Marc D. Rayman’s comment in his Dawn journal, saying that ‘its tremendous solar arrays [are] the most powerful ever used on an interplanetary mission.’ Is that really true? According to JPL’s Dawn website, the solar arrays have a total span of 19.7 meters. By comparison, each of Rosetta’s two arrays is 14 meters in length (28m total). Are Dawn’s arrays so much more efficient? Thanks.”

Here’s an answer from Dawn Chief Engineer Marc Rayman:

Yes, this is really true. Dawn’s solar arrays, although smaller than Rosetta’s, could indeed produce more power because they are more efficient. Fortunately, it is not a competition! Both missions seek fascinating new insights into the complex history and character of the solar system as they take all of us on adventures to exotic destinations. To overcome some of the daunting challenges of traveling moderately far from the sun, engineers on each mission have turned to powerful solar arrays.

Rosetta is a fabulous mission, promising exciting results from comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is with the greatest enthusiasm that I look forward to the astonishing discoveries that await its rendezvous with this solar system relict.

The spacecraft carries the largest solar arrays ever flown on an interplanetary mission. The two 14-meter (47-foot) arrays project in opposite directions from the main spacecraft itself, creating a structure about 32 meters (105 feet) tip-to-tip, and the total area of solar cells is 53 square meters (573 square feet). Composed of silicon, these cells could have produced somewhat in excess of seven kilowatts when at Earth’s distance from the sun. Of course, Rosetta did not need that much power, but as it travels into the depths of space, every watt will be precious. When the spacecraft is more than five times Earth’s distance from the sun and the light from our star is much weaker, the giant arrays still will generate 400 watts, just enough to keep the probe operating. (Rosetta will arc out to that distance on its way to the comet, but it will be closer to the sun, and hence able to produce more power, when it arrives and conducts its investigations of this mysterious body).

Dawn’s solar arrays, while the largest used on a NASA interplanetary mission, are smaller than Rosetta’s. This bird’s wingspan is about 20 meters (65 feet), and the solar arrays, each more than eight meters (27 feet) in length, have a total of about 32 square meters (341 square feet) to capture sunlight. The panels are populated with advanced cells composed of three different materials that work together to convert a larger percentage of the incident light into electrical power. The combination of indium gallium phosphide, indium gallium arsenide, and germanium makes these cells so much more efficient that despite the smaller collecting area, together they produce higher power under the same conditions. These arrays could have generated more than 10 kilowatts at Earth’s distance from the sun. Dawn not only did not need such tremendous power, but like Rosetta, it was not even capable of using it all. But it too ventures far from home to remote locations where sunlight is less abundant.

Dawn’s ambitious mission to orbit the two most massive residents of the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres, would be quite impossible without its use of ion propulsion. The key to ion propulsion’s extraordinary capability is its conversion of electrical power into thrust, so Dawn carries such powerful arrays to ensure that even when exploring dwarf planet Ceres at three times Earth’s distance from the sun, it can produce sufficient power to thrust and operate all other systems. I describe more about the importance of power to the mission in my Dawn Journal of July 27, 2008.

I appreciate your interest in Dawn, and I hope you will continue to join us as we travel to two of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system. In only 10 months, Dawn will become the first spacecraft ever to orbit a resident of the main asteroid belt as it begins its exploration of protoplanet Vesta, and to put it quite simply, this is going to be really cool!

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