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.
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.