Posts Tagged ‘space exploration’

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

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’s Stellar Anniversary

Thursday, September 27th, 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
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Dawnniversaries,

On the fifth anniversary of the beginning of its ambitious interplanetary adventure, Dawn can look back with great satisfaction on its spectacular exploration of the giant protoplanet Vesta and forward with great eagerness to reaching dwarf planet Ceres. Today Earth’s robotic ambassador to the main asteroid belt is in quiet cruise, gradually reshaping its orbit around the sun so it can keep its appointment in 2015 with the mysterious alien world that lies ahead.

This anniversary resembles the first three more than the fourth. Its first years in space were devoted to spiraling away from the sun, ascending the solar system hill so it could gracefully slip into orbit around Vesta in time for its fourth anniversary. One year ago, Dawn was in the behemoth’s gravitational grip and preparing to map its surface in stereo and make other measurements. The subsequent year yielded stunning treasures as Dawn unveiled the wondrous secrets of a world that had only been glimpsed from afar for over two centuries. While at Vesta, it spiraled around the massive orb to position itself for the best possible perspectives. Its final spiral culminated in its departure from Vesta earlier this month. Now for its fifth anniversary, it is spiraling around the sun again, climbing beyond Vesta so that it can reach 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 fifth 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, and fourth anniversaries.

In its five years of interplanetary travels, the spacecraft has thrust for a total of 1060 days, or 58 percent of the time (and about 0.000000021 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 267 kilograms (587 pounds) of its supply of xenon propellant, which was 425 kilograms (937 pounds) on September 27, 2007.

The fraction of time the ship has spent in powered flight is lower than last year (when it was 68 percent), because Dawn devoted relatively little of the past year to thrusting. Although it did change orbits extensively at Vesta, most of the time it was focused on exactly what it was designed and built to do: scrutinize the ancient world for clues about the dawn of the solar system.

The thrusting so far in the mission has achieved the equivalent of accelerating the probe by 7.14 kilometers per second (16,000 miles per hour). 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 slightly more than half 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 five revolutions around the sun, covering about 31.4 AU (4.70 billion kilometers or 2.92 billion miles). Orbiting farther from the sun, and thus moving at a more leisurely pace, Dawn has traveled 23.4 AU (3.50 billion kilometers or 2.18 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. Since Dawn’s launch, Vesta has traveled only 20.4 AU (3.05 billion kilometers or 1.90 billion miles) and the even more sedate Ceres has gone 18.9 AU (2.82 billion kilometers or 1.75 billion miles).

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal

Slice of History: Remote Controlled Manipulators

Tuesday, July 10th, 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

Remote Controlled Manipulators
Remote Controlled Manipulators — Photograph Number 381-4778B

The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s 1971 Annual Report featured this photo of a remote controlled system for handling solid propellants. A 1965 Space Programs Summary report indicated that the equipment had been ordered and would be installed in building 197 within a few months. This equipment made it possible to safely mix and load high energy solid propellants into small motors. Building 197 is still known as the Solid Propellant Engineering Laboratory.

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

Dawn Ascends Over Asteroid Vesta

Wednesday, May 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 at 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 Dawnright Spectacular Readers,

Dawn is wrapping up a spectacularly rewarding phase of its mission of exploration. Since descending to its low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) in December, the stalwart probe has circled Vesta about 800 times and collected a truly outstanding trove of precious observations of the protoplanet. Having far exceeded the plans, expectations, and even hopes for what it would accomplish when LAMO began, the ambitious explorer is now ready to begin its ascent. On May 1, atop its familiar blue-green pillar of xenon ions, the craft will embark upon the six-week spiral to its second high-altitude mapping orbit.

When the intricate plans for Dawn’s one-year orbital residence at Vesta were developed, LAMO was to be 70 days, longer than any other phase. Because of the many daunting challenges of exploring an uncharted, alien world in the forbidding depths of the asteroid belt so far from home, mission planners could not be confident of staying on a rigid schedule, and yet they wanted to make the most of the precious time at the giant asteroid. They set aside 40 days (with no committed activities) to use as needed in overcoming problems during the unique approach and entry into orbit as well as the intensive observation campaigns in survey orbit and the first high-altitude mapping orbit plus the complex spiral flights from each science orbit to the next. To no one’s surprise, unexpected problems did indeed arise on occasion, and yet in every case, the dedicated professionalism and expertise of the team (occasionally augmented with cortisol, caffeine, and carbohydrates) allowed the expedition to remain on track without needing to draw on that reserve. To everyone’s surprise and great delight, by the beginning of LAMO on December 12, the entirety of the 40 days remained available. Therefore, all of it was used to extend the time the spacecraft would spend at low altitude studying the fascinating world beneath it.

Dawn’s mission at Vesta, exciting and successful though it is, is not the craft’s sole objective. Thanks to the extraordinary capability of its ion propulsion system, this is the first vessel ever planned to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations. After it completes its scrutiny of the behemoth it now orbits, the second most massive resident of the main asteroid belt, Dawn will set sail for dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Since 2009, the interplanetary itinerary has included breaking out of Vesta orbit in July 2012 in order to arrive at Ceres on schedule in February 2015. Taking advantage of additional information they have gained on the spacecraft’s generation and consumption of electrical power, the performance of the ion propulsion system, and other technical issues, engineers have refined their analyses for how long the journey through the asteroid belt to Ceres will take. Their latest assessment is that they can shave 40 days off the previous plan, once again demonstrating the valuable flexibility of ion propulsion, and that translates into being able to stay that much longer at the current celestial residence. (This extension is different from the 40 days described above, because that was designed to ensure Dawn could complete its studies and still leave on schedule in July. For this new extension, the departure date is being changed.) Even though a larger operations team is required at Vesta than during the cruise to Ceres, the Dawn project has the wherewithal to cover the cost. Because operations at Vesta have been so smooth, no new funds from NASA are needed; rather, the project can use the money it had held in reserve in case of problems. In this new schedule, Dawn will gently free itself of Vesta’s gravitational hold on August 26.

Most of the bonus time has been devoted to extending LAMO by a month, allowing the already richly productive investigations there to be even better. (Future logs will describe how the rest of the additional time at Vesta will be spent.) With all sensors fully operational, the robotic explorer has been making the best possible use of its precious time at Vesta, revealing more and more thrilling details of an exotic world deep in the asteroid belt.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal

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

The Giant Asteroid, Up Close and Personal

Thursday, September 29th, 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
This image obtained by the framing camera on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows the south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
› Full image and caption | › Read related news release

Dear Dawnniversaries,

Dawn’s fourth anniversary of being in space is very different from its previous ones. Indeed, those days all were devoted to reaching the distant destination the ship is now exploring. Celebrating its anniversary of leaving Earth, Dawn is in orbit around a kindred terrestrial-type world, the ancient protoplanet Vesta.

The adventurer spent August on Vesta’s shores and now it’s ready to dive in. Dawn devoted most of this month to working its way down from the 2,700-kilometer (1,700-mile) survey orbit to its current altitude of about 680 kilometers (420 miles) and changing the orientation of the orbit. (For a more detailed discussion of the altitude, go here.) The sensationally successful observing campaign in survey orbit produced captivating views, revealing a complex, fascinating landscape. Now four times closer to the surface, the probe is nearly ready for an even more comprehensive exploration from the high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO). The plans for HAMO have changed very little since it was described on the third anniversary of Dawn’s launch.

Dawn’s spiral descent went extremely well. We have seen before that bodies travel at higher velocities in lower altitude orbits, where the force of gravity is greater. For example, Mercury hurtles around the sun faster than Earth in order to balance the stronger pull of gravity, and Earth’s speed is greater than that of more remote Vesta. Similarly, satellites in close orbits around Earth, such as the International Space Station, race around faster than the much more distant moon. When it began its spiral on August 31, Dawn’s orbital speed high above Vesta was 76 meters per second (170 mph), and each revolution took nearly 69 hours. Under the gentle thrust of its ion propulsion system, the spacecraft completed 18 revolutions of Vesta, the loops getting tighter and faster as the orbital altitude gradually decreased, until it arrived at its new orbit on schedule on Sept. 18. In HAMO, Dawn orbits at 135 meters per second (302 mph), circling the world beneath it every 12.3 hours.

When Dawn’s itinerary called for it to stop thrusting, it was very close to HAMO but not quite there yet. As mission planners had recognized long beforehand, small differences between the planned and the actual flight profiles were inevitable. Extensive and sophisticated analysis has been undertaken in recent years to estimate the size of such discrepancies so the intricate plans for completing all the work at Vesta could account for the time and the work needed to deliver the robotic explorer to the intended destination. In order to accomplish the intensive program of observations with its scientific instruments, the spacecraft must follow an orbital path carefully matched to the sequences of commands already developed with painstaking attention to detail. The beauty of Dawn’;s artistically choreographed pas de deux with Vesta depends on the music and the movements being well synchronized.

During its descent, Dawn paused frequently to allow controllers to update the flight profile, accounting for some of the variances in its course along the way. Following the completion of thrusting, navigators tracked the ship more extensively as it sailed around Vesta, measuring its orbit with great accuracy. This revealed not only the details of the orbital parameters (such as size, shape, and orientation) but also more about the character of Vesta’s gravity field than could be detected at higher altitudes. With the new information, the team designed two short maneuvers to adjust the orbit. The first, lasting four hours, was executed last night, and the second, half an hour shorter, will be completed tonight. After further measurements to verify the final orbit, the month of HAMO observations will begin on Sept. 29.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal

Taken In by the Giant Asteroid Vesta

Monday, July 18th, 2011

By Marc Rayman

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has just arrived at its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta. Each month, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares an update on the mission’s progress.

Latest Image of Vesta captured by Dawn on July 17, 2011
This is the first image obtained by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft after successfully entering orbit around Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA › See more images

Dear Residawnts of Vesta,

Dawn has arrived!!

After covering 2.8 billion kilometers (1.7 billion miles) on its own, after traveling for nearly four years through the lonely emptiness of interplanetary space, after being bound by the gravity only of the sun, Dawn is finally in orbit around Vesta. To get here, it gently propelled itself with its ion propulsion system for 70% of its journey, or more than 2.6 years. Deep in the asteroid belt, far from its planet of origin, well beyond Mars (which it visited ever so briefly more than two years ago), where no spacecraft has ever been before, Dawn now resides with a giant.

While more detailed navigational analyses will be required to determine the exact time, around 10 p.m. PDT on July 15, as the spacecraft performed its familiar routine of ion thrusting, its orbit around the sun finally was so close to that of Vesta that the protoplanet’s gravity could take hold of it. Dawn was only about 16,000 kilometers (9,900 miles) above the ancient, scarred surface of the alien world. Traveling together around the sun at more than 20.5 kilometers per second (46,000 mph), their orbits were so similar that the cosmic craft was closing in at the leisurely speed of only 27 meters per second (60 mph). The last time it approached a nearby destination so slowly was in April 2007. At that time, it used more conventional propulsion technology: it rode on a truck from Washington, DC to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

That may be too many numbers for some readers (and too few for our good friends the Numerivores). But it all reduces to one cool fact: humankind has succeeded in delivering an interplanetary spaceship to orbit around one of the largest objects in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Indeed, Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit any object in the main belt.

The probe slipped gently into orbit with the same grace it has displayed during its nearly 1000 days of ion thrusting through the solar system. Although the unusual nature of the spiral capture has been explained in detail before, there is one important difference (in addition to some minor ones) from previous descriptions: now it is history.

Dawn has orbited two other bodies. Shortly after it left Cape Canaveral atop a fiery rocket, the spacecraft spent about 45 minutes in Earth orbit, waiting for the proper orbital alignment to begin its ambitious deep-space voyage. Once the rocket gave it enough energy to leave the planet behind, Dawn orbited the sun as surely as Earth and the other planets do, although, of course, it spent most of its time reshaping that orbit. Now it is orbiting Vesta, as surely as the moon orbits Earth.

Entering orbit around the protoplanet is essential to Dawn’s plans for comprehensive studies of this exotic world, but simply being in orbit is not adequate. The craft did not miss a beat as it flew into Vesta’s grasp; it is spiraling around its new master as it aims for its first science orbit at an altitude of 2700 kilometers (1700 miles). The intensive scrutiny of Vesta from survey orbit will begin in the second week of August.

It’s a noteworthy coincidence that Earth and Vesta will happen to be very well aligned then. As they follow their independent orbits around the sun, occasionally their paths bring them relatively near to each other. So just as Dawn begins looking closely at Vesta, so too can residents of Earth. The protoplanet is the brightest object in the asteroid belt, and the only one ever visible to unaided terrestrial eyes, although binoculars or a telescope make it much easier to spot, especially under skies that are brightened by the lights of cities.

Even when their separation is at its minimum, Earth and Vesta will come only to within about 1.23 AU (184 million kilometers or 114 million miles) of each other. While their closest approach is late at night on July 31, the geometry changes slowly enough that there are good viewing opportunities well before and after. Go here for guidance on how to find Vesta in the constellation Capricornus. And if you are fortunate enough to glimpse that distant point of light, let your imagination add to the scene the recent immigrant from Earth, representing you and the rest of humankind on its mission of exploration. There, far from its erstwhile home and the beings who urge it on, this ambitious adventurer is translating that dot of light among the myriad stars into an exciting and fascinating account of the dawn of the solar system.

Dawn has spent most of its time since the last log thrusting as usual. The thrusting even at the time it was captured by Vesta’s gravity was no different. We have seen before that, in stark contrast to the tension when other missions enter orbit, with ion propulsion, the process is very calm indeed. For that matter, since May 2010, Dawn has thrust with its radio transmitter turned off, devoting that precious power to accelerating xenon ions rather than generating radio waves. The ship continued in silence when it went into orbit on Friday night. Mission control was empty, there being no need to monitor the probe’s operation. In fact, your correspondent was dancing, confident that the pas de deux being performed 188 million kilometers (117 million miles) away would be executed with graceful beauty and flawless precision.

Confirmation that Dawn was in orbit came shortly before 11:30 pm PDT on July 16 (more than 24 hours after it glided into orbit) when its radio signals were received at the Deep Space Network. Following its preprogrammed sequence of instructions, the spacecraft acquired more images of Vesta earlier in the evening and then initiated communications with Earth right on schedule. Observing that it was in good health and continuing to perform all of its functions demonstrated that it had achieved orbit. The choreography was beautiful!

Reliable as Dawn is, it did experience an unexpected interruption in thrust recently. On June 27, a cosmic ray, a high energy subatomic particle traveling through space, apparently managed to strike an electrical component on the spacecraft in an especially effective way. The component is used by the ion propulsion system computer controller to operate valves in the complex plumbing that transports xenon from the main tank to the operating thruster. The propellant needs to be delivered at just the right rate for optimal performance. When the cosmic ray deposited its energy in that device, it deprived the circuit of the ability to send signals to the valves, even when directed to do so by the computer. (A cosmic ray is the most likely culprit, but other explanations for the circuit’s inaction are still being considered.) As a result, when it was time to open valves to feed a little more xenon into the thruster, the controller was unable to comply. The computer detected the problem, followed the appropriate procedure for terminating thrust, and alerted the main spacecraft computer. That computer correctly responded by canceling other planned activities and commanding the ship into one of its safe modes. In this case, because all other systems were healthy, it was not necessary to invoke the normal safe mode. Rather, the robot properly chose to make fewer reconfigurations. It pointed its main antenna to Earth and transmitted its status, awaiting a response from controllers.

The Deep Space Network began a routine communications session early on June 28, and the Dawn team immediately understood the spacecraft condition. Before the end of the day, they had restored it to its normal flight mode and made preparations to activate the other controller.

Dawn had been using controller #1 and ion thruster #3 since December. With the controller unable to operate valves, engineers instructed the ship to switch to controller #2, which was in command for most of the thrusting in 2010. Its ability to operate the valves was not compromised. That unit can be used with thruster #2 and #3, but it was faster to formulate commands to use thruster #2, so in the interest of time, that was the choice.

Later this summer, engineers will conduct tests with controller #1 to assess its health and determine whether its valve signals can be restored. That controller operates thruster #1 and #3. Mission planners had long ago decided not to use venerable #1 for the rest of the mission, as it requires slightly more power than its siblings, so whether controller #1 will be fully functional or not, Dawn’s extraterrestrial expedition can be completed as planned with controller #2.

Once the spacecraft had deviated from its intended flight plan by not thrusting, navigators had to devise a new plan to fly to Vesta. To ensure there would be enough time to make up for the lost thrust, they removed one of the navigation imaging sessions (and the communications period that followed it) from the schedule and another routine communications session. Of course, as experienced interplanetary explorers, Dawn’s mission team had always recognized that glitches could interfere with any activity, so more imaging and more communications had been planned than truly were required. Doing without a few to allow time for some compensatory thrusting was easily accommodated.

In order to resume thrusting quickly, controllers chose not to optimize the plan but rather simply to devise a plan that was adequate. The consequence was that they ended up giving Dawn more time to thrust than it really even needed. The entire episode beginning with the balky controller cost 1.2 days of thrust, and the revised plan added 1.8 days of thrust at other times. As a result, the insertion into orbit shifted 15 hours earlier. Such flexibility is another of the many differences between missions that use ion propulsion and those that use conventional propulsion.

Before restarting its powered flight, however, the team was eager to allow Dawn to conduct its first planned observation of Vesta throughout one full rotation of the protoplanet on its axis, a Vestian day of 5 hours 20 minutes. (This and other activities during the approach phase were described last year.) Thanks to the fleet and flawless work of the team, that was carried out on schedule on June 29-30, and all the planned images were acquired. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) also peered at Vesta to provide additional information for use in setting instrument parameters for the science observations in survey orbit. After it acquired two excellent sets of data, its internal computer detected an unexpected condition, so it did not complete the rest of its activities. As the camera’s images were beaming back to Earth on June 30, engineers verified that VIR was in good condition, and they will study its telemetry further as they continue to plan for its important measurements of the minerals that compose Vesta’s surface.

In the original itinerary, ion thrusting would recommence after the communications session on June 30. And that is exactly what occurred, even with the unplanned thrusting hiatus in the preceding days. Dawn continued closing in on Vesta with the gentle pressure of thruster #2, just as it still is today.

As a reminder, an easy way you can have the same otherworldly view of Vesta as Dawn is to visit here. These logs generally will not provide interpretations of the rich bounty of images (but they are fantastic, aren’t they?) or other fascinating measurements. As the data are assessed by Dawn’s team of planetary scientists from four countries, news of the results will be distributed by NASA’s and JPL’s news organizations. And for more frequent updates on the progress of the mission than are provided in these logs, readers may want to go here, where your correspondent abandons his idiolect to provide extremely brief reports much more often (with much less, ahem, color).

On July 9-10, the spacecraft’s agenda included another pause in thrusting. This time, in addition to acquiring its second set of images while Vesta completed a full rotation, Dawn photographed the space around Vesta in search of moons. Remote observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories on Earth had not found any, but that did not rule out their presence. As no moons had been detected yet, however, they would have to be small and therefore faint. In order to try to discover whether there might be any, the camera used different exposures, some as long as 4.5 minutes. (For photographers, the effective shutter speed for the pictures of Vesta that reveal its surface features is 1/125 of a second.) The spacecraft pointed its camera around Vesta and acquired 72 images. Three hours later, it imaged the same locations, and then another nine hours after that, it repeated the sequence once again. The pictures are being scrutinized for points of light that shift position from one set of images to another, betraying the orbital motion of natural satellites of Vesta.

Although those results are not yet available, we now know with certainty that Vesta does have a moon. Its name is Dawn!

Dawn is 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) from Vesta, closer than many terrestrial satellites are to Earth. It is also 1.25 AU (187 million kilometers or 116 million miles) from Earth, or 470 times as far as the moon and 1.23 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 21 minutes to make the round trip.

› Read Marc Rayman’s previous Dawn Journals

Slice of History: Low Speed Wind Tunnel

Monday, July 11th, 2011

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

Low Speed Wind Tunnel
Low Speed Wind Tunnel — Photograph Number 383-6109Bc

In December 1974, this photo was taken of the Low Speed Wind Tunnel. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had 21-, 20-, and 12-inch wind tunnels that were very well documented, but an April 1967 report about JPL wind tunnels does not mention this facility and very little is known about it. It appears in 1961 drawings of building 80, which was next door to the main wind tunnel building but it may have been relocated years later. The March 1968 JPL telephone book indicates that there was a Low Density Wind Tunnel in building 183, room 601, belonging to the Fluid Physics Section. The section number prefix for this image indicates that it was photographed for the Research and Advanced Concepts Section, but the photo was taken at the request of Paul Massier of the Structures and Dynamics Section. Massier was seen in the June “Slice of History” blog taken in the anechoic chamber.

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