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.
Dear Ardawnt Readers,
Continuing its daring mission to explore some of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system, Dawn remains on course and on schedule for its rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres next year. Silently and patiently streaking through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the ardent adventurer is gradually reshaping its orbit around the Sun with its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system. Vesta, the giant protoplanet it unveiled during its spectacular expedition there in 2011-2012, grows ever more distant.
In December, and January, we saw Dawn’s plans for the “approach phase” to Ceres and how it will slip gracefully into orbit under the gentle control of its ion engine. Entering orbit, gratifying and historic though it will be, is only a means to an end. The reason for orbiting its destinations is to have all the time needed to use its suite of sophisticated sensors to scrutinize these alien worlds.
As at Vesta, Dawn will take advantage of the extraordinary capability of its ion propulsion system to maneuver extensively in orbit at Ceres. During the course of its long mission there, it will fly to four successively lower orbital altitudes, each chosen to optimize certain investigations. (The probe occupied six different orbits at Vesta, where two of them followed the lowest altitude. As the spacecraft will not leave Ceres, there is no value in ascending from its fourth and lowest orbit.) All of the plans for exploring Ceres have been developed to discover as much as possible about this mysterious dwarf planet while husbanding the precious hydrazine propellant, ensuring that Dawn will complete its ambitious mission there regardless of the health of its reaction wheels.
All of its orbits at Ceres will be circular and polar, meaning the spacecraft will pass over the north pole and the south pole, so all latitudes will come within view. Thanks to Ceres’s own rotation, all longitudes will be presented to the orbiting observer. To visualize this, think of (or even look at) a common globe of Earth. A ring encircling it represents Dawn’s orbital path. If the ring is only over the equator, the spacecraft cannot attain good views of the high northern and southern latitudes. If, instead, the ring goes over both poles, then the combined motion of the globe spinning on its axis and the craft moving along the ring provides an opportunity for complete coverage.
Dawn will orbit in the same direction it did at Vesta, traveling from north to south over the side illuminated by the distant Sun. After flying over the south pole, it will head north, the surface directly beneath it in the dark of night. When it travels over the north pole, the terrain below will come into sunlight and the ship will sail south again.
Dawn’s first orbital phase is distinguished not only by providing the first opportunity to conduct intensive observations of Ceres but also by having the least appealing name of any of the Ceres phases. It is known as RC3, or the third “rotation characterization” of the Ceres mission. (RC1 and RC2 will occur during the approach phase, as described in December.)
During RC3 in April 2015, Dawn will have its first opportunity for a global characterization of its new residence in the asteroid belt. It will take pictures and record visible and infrared spectra of the surface, which will help scientists determine its composition. In addition to learning about the appearance and makeup of Ceres, these observations will allow scientists to establish exactly where Ceres’s pole points. The axis Earth rotates around, for example, happens to point very near a star that has been correspondingly named Polaris, or the North Star. [Note to editors of local editions: You may change the preceding sentence to describe wherever the axis of your planet points.] We know only roughly where Ceres’s pole is from our telescopic studies, but Dawn’s measurements in RC3 will yield a much more accurate result. Also, as the spacecraft circles in Ceres’s gravitational hold, navigators will measure the strength of the gravitational pull and hence its overall mass.
RC3 will be at an orbital altitude of about 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). From there, the dwarf planet will appear eight times larger than the moon as viewed from Earth, or about the size of a soccer ball seen from 10 feet (3.1 meters). At that distance, Dawn will be able to capture the entire disk of Ceres in its pictures. The explorer’s camera, designed for mapping unfamiliar extraterrestrial landscapes from orbit, will see details more than 20 times finer than we have now from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Although all instruments will be operated in RC3, the gamma-ray and neutron detector (GRaND) will not be able to detect the faint nuclear emissions from Ceres when it is this far away. Rather, it will measure cosmic radiation. In August we will learn more about how GRaND will measure Ceres’s atomic composition when it is closer.
It will take about 15 days to complete a single orbital revolution at this altitude. Meanwhile, Ceres turns on its axis in just over nine hours (more than two and a half times faster than Earth). Dawn’s leisurely pace compared to the spinning world beneath it presents a very convenient way to map it. It is almost as if the probe hovers in place, progressing only through a short arc of its orbit as Ceres pirouettes helpfully before it.
When Dawn is on the lit side of Ceres over a latitude of about 43 degrees north, it will point its scientific instruments at the unfamiliar, exotic surface. As Ceres completes one full rotation, the robot will fill its data buffers with as much as they can hold, storing images and spectra. By then, most of the northern hemisphere will have presented itself, and Dawn will have traveled to about 34 degrees north latitude. The spacecraft will then aim its main antenna to Earth and beam its prized findings back for all those who long to know more about the mysteries of the solar system. When Dawn is between 3 degrees north and 6 degrees south latitude, it will perform the same routine, acquiring more photos and spectra as Ceres turns to reveal its equatorial regions. To gain a thorough view of the southern latitudes, it will follow the same strategy as it orbits from 34 degrees south to 43 degrees south.
When Dawn goes over to the dark side, it will still have important measurements to make (as long as Darth Vader does not interfere). While the surface immediately beneath it will be in darkness, part of the limb will be illuminated, displaying a lovely crescent against the blackness of space. Both in the southern hemisphere and in the northern, the spacecraft will collect more pictures and spectra from this unique perspective. Dawn’s orbital dance has been carefully choreographed to ensure the sensitive instruments are not pointed too close to the Sun.