Dawn craft to circle giant asteroid in 1st stop

Jul 15, 2011 By ALICIA CHANG , AP Science Writer
Dawn craft to circle giant asteroid in 1st stop (AP)
This undated artist's concept released by NASA and UCLA shows the Dawn spacecraft with Ceres and Vesta. After four years sailing through space, the Dawn spacecraft was expected to slip into orbit late Friday around a giant asteroid Vesta to begin a yearlong investigation into the origins of the solar system. (AP Photo/NASA/UCLA, William K. Hartmann)

(AP) -- After four years sailing through space, the Dawn spacecraft was expected to slip into orbit late Friday around a giant asteroid to begin a yearlong investigation into the origins of the solar system.

It is the first of two scheduled tour stops for the NASA probe that almost never made it to the launch pad.

Dawn will spend the next several weeks spiraling ever closer to the surface of Vesta, a dry and rocky asteroid about the length of Arizona that's thought to be the source of numerous meteorites found on Earth.

Scientists are eagerly awaiting the first close-up shots of Vesta, expected next month. Until now, it has only been photographed from afar.

Residing in a vast field of rubble between Mars and Jupiter, asteroids are like the Peter Pans of the solar system that never quite grew into full-fledged planets. That they remain frozen in time is a boon for researchers attempting to reconstruct how Earth and the other planets formed.

Because of its stunted growth, Vesta holds "a record of the earliest history of the ," said the mission's lead scientist Christopher Russell of the University of California, Los Angeles.

After spending a year at Vesta, Dawn will cruise on to an even bigger asteroid, Ceres.

Vesta and Ceres are not your garden-variety asteroids; if the asteroid belt were a boxing ring, they would be the heavyweights in a sea of lightweights.

Past spacecraft have zipped by, circled around and even landed on much smaller asteroids. Dawn will be the first to orbit two asteroids on the same mission, a feat that is possible because of Dawn's futuristic engines, which allow for gentle yet constant acceleration. Once the stuff of science fiction, ion propulsion, which has been tested in space over the years, is far more efficient than conventional used by the majority of spacecraft.

Circling an extraterrestrial body is usually a risky, nail-biting business. A speeding spacecraft often has to fire its engines to slow down and be captured into orbit. One wrong move and it can overshoot its target.

In Dawn's case, it journeyed slowly on purpose so that it could line up with Vesta's path around the sun. Dawn was approaching the asteroid at 60 mph, slower than the speed limit on most U.S. highways, and engineers expected it to enter orbit around 10 p.m. PDT Friday.

Because Dawn's antenna was pointed away from Earth, actual confirmation of the capture would not be possible until after the weekend when it's programmed to re-establish contact.

If a cosmic ray or other unforeseen occurrence interrupts Dawn's flight, engineers said they can still get it back on track.

"We never get very far off the normal course" because Dawn is constantly thrusting, said chief engineer Marc Rayman of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $466 million mission.

Dawn racked up 1.7 billion miles traveling to Vesta and will be about 10,000 miles from the surface at the time of orbit insertion. By the time it reaches Ceres - the largest object in the - in 2015, it would have logged 3 billion miles. With the space shuttle program winding down, NASA wants to send astronauts outside Earth's orbit to an asteroid and eventually Mars. Robotic spacecraft such as Dawn should help future manned missions.

The spacecraft will begin surveying Vesta next month from 1,700 miles high and will get as close as 110 miles above the surface. Besides a camera, it carries a spectrometer to map minerals, and a gamma ray and neutron detector to measure the chemical composition of the surface.

Of particular interest is a massive crater in the South Pole caused by an ancient collision that hurled chunks of debris into space. Some fragments fell to Earth as meteorites. It's estimated that 1 out of every 20 meteorites found on our planet came from Vesta.

"Vesta isn't just another chip of rock. It's a big place," Rayman said.

The journey to the was filled with drama. The project was put on hold in late 2005 after problems during development pushed it over budget. NASA killed the mission in early 2006 only to do an about-face after JPL challenged the decision.

Dawn finally blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 2007 and is the largest interplanetary probe launched by NASA. With its solar panels unfurled, it measures 64 feet tip to tip.

Explore further: Kazakh satellite to be launched into orbit

5 /5 (6 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Dawn moves closer to the asteroid belt

Sep 12, 2007

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has been positioned at Kennedy Space Center's launch pad 17B atop a Delta II rocket for its launch from Florida later this month.

Dawn Glides Into New Year

Nov 21, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's Dawn spacecraft shut down its ion propulsion system today as scheduled. The spacecraft is now gliding toward a Mars flyby in February of next year.

Dawn probe reaches milestone approaching asteroid Vesta

May 03, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's Dawn spacecraft has reached its official approach phase to the asteroid Vesta and will begin using cameras for the first time to aid navigation for an expected July 16 orbital encounter. ...

Dawn Enters Asteroid Belt -- For Good

Nov 16, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's Dawn spacecraft re-entered our solar system's asteroid belt today, Nov. 13, and this time it will stay there.

Recommended for you

Kazakh satellite to be launched into orbit

9 hours ago

Kazakhstan's first-ever Earth observation satellite is to be fired into orbit next week from the European spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana, launch company Arianespace said.

Habitable exoplanets are bad news for humanity

11 hours ago

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth ...

First-of-its-kind NASA space-weather project

Apr 23, 2014

A NASA scientist is launching a one-to-two-year pilot project this summer that takes advantage of U.S. high-voltage power transmission lines to measure a phenomenon that has caused widespread power outages ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

jwalkeriii
4 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2011
Maybe someone can explain why we can't sent a spacecraft to a near earth asteroid then just hitch a ride; charting our solar system naturally while essentially floating through the solar system, pointing our cameras at whatever we feel is interesting...
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2011
Maybe someone can explain why we can't sent a spacecraft to a near earth asteroid then just hitch a ride;

What do you mean by 'hitch a ride'?

The asteroids aren't going anywhere (except around the sun). But if you already are in formation with a comet or somesuch then you really don't need the comet to drag you along - your path would be basically the same with or without it (the gravity of such small objects is almost negligible).

Please consider the distances involved. The solar system is a BIG place with a LOT of nothing in between. It's extremely unlikely that a comet passes close enough to one - let alone multiple - interesting places within centuries to take good pictures.

We aren't flitting around out there from place to place because we can't bring along much fuel (taking more fuel means a heavier craft which means less acceleration per ounce of fuel, etc. )

More news stories

Habitable exoplanets are bad news for humanity

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth ...

Professional and amateur astronomers join forces

(Phys.org) —Long before the term "citizen science" was coined, the field of astronomy has benefited from countless men and women who study the sky in their spare time. These amateur astronomers devote hours ...

Kazakh satellite to be launched into orbit

Kazakhstan's first-ever Earth observation satellite is to be fired into orbit next week from the European spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana, launch company Arianespace said.

Genetic code of the deadly tsetse fly unraveled

Mining the genome of the disease-transmitting tsetse fly, researchers have revealed the genetic adaptions that allow it to have such unique biology and transmit disease to both humans and animals.

Ocean microbes display remarkable genetic diversity

The smallest, most abundant marine microbe, Prochlorococcus, is a photosynthetic bacteria species essential to the marine ecosystem. An estimated billion billion billion of the single-cell creatures live i ...