How Capt. Kirk Changed the World

How Capt. Kirk Changed the World
An artist's concept of Dawn in "standard orbit" around asteroid Vesta.

"Standard orbit, Mr. Sulu." Captain Kirk barks out the order with such confidence. He knows the USS Enterprise can slip in and out of planetary orbits with ease. But it's only easy in the realm of science fiction. In the real world, such maneuvers have been impossible -- until now.

Enter Dawn, NASA's cutting edge mission to the .

Powered with a futuristic sounding new technology called "ion propulsion," this spacecraft will perform space moves rivaling those of the Enterprise.

At this very moment, Dawn is slowly climbing away from the sun, beyond Mars, on its way to its first destination, asteroid Vesta. Dawn will enter "standard orbit" around this rocky world for a year, exploring its mysteries.

Then Dawn will do something unprecedented in real-world : exit the orbit of one distant body, and fly to and orbit another. The second destination is asteroid Ceres.

"Dawn will be the first spacecraft ever built to orbit two target bodies after leaving Earth," says Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "There's not even a concept for doing such a mission with conventional propulsion systems. The spacecraft would have to carry so much fuel, it would be too heavy to launch."

Instead, Dawn relies on ion propulsion, which doesn't require a huge spacecraft. Rayman first heard the term years ago while watching - you guessed it -- Star Trek.

Using spanning 65 feet, Dawn collects power from the sun to ionize atoms of xenon. These ions are expelled by a strong electric field out the back of the spacecraft, producing a gentle thrust. The weightless and frictionless conditions of space flight allow this gossamer force effect to build up, so the spacecraft gains speed slowly and continuously.

"Dawn isn't exactly a hot rod," says Rayman. "It would take 4 days to go from 0 to 60. But it ultimately achieves fantastically high velocity while consuming very little propellant. It uses only a kilogram of xenon every 4 days."

Typically, conventional rockets thrust for a few minutes at most before they run out of fuel, then they coast to their destination. Dawn’s engines, on the other hand, are almost constantly active.

"Dawn will thrust for 5 1/2 years!" says Rayman. "It's already been thrusting for 591 days. That's 62% of the time it's been in space."

This means Dawn must be very fuel efficient. "A typical Mars orbiter could consume more than 600 pounds of propellants to enter orbit around the red planet," says Rayman. "With its system, Dawn could do it with less than 60 pounds of xenon."

Add all of these advantages together and you get a spacecraft that can accomplish - well - the impossible.

"Dawn is taking us, in the truest sense, up close to two distant, alien, unexplored worlds."

Its destinations -- Ceres and Vesta - are two of the biggest asteroids in the solar system. Indeed, Ceres is so big, it is actually classified as a dwarf planet, and Vesta is not far behind. Yet to date they've been studied only from a great distance, so they're virtually unknown. What is known is that they're not alike.

"Vesta is more like the rocky bodies of the inner solar system, one of which is right under our feet," explains Rayman. "And Ceres is more like the icy moons of the outer solar system. Scientists think it may even have a subsurface ocean of liquid water!"

How Capt. Kirk Changed the World
Hubble Space Telescope photos of Dawn's targets, giant asteroids Ceres and Vesta. [more] Credit: NASA/HST

Dawn's instruments will collect data and images to uncover the secrets these two bodies conceal and perhaps reveal why they're so different from one another even though they inhabit such similar regions of the solar system.

"This mission will help us understand what the conditions were when Vesta and Ceres formed at the dawn of the solar system. It will fit more pieces in the grand puzzle of how our solar system formed and evolved - and perhaps how others do as well."

Executing new cosmic maneuvers, exploring alien worlds, answering profound questions - Dawn has it all. But Rayman thinks the most compelling aspect of missions like Dawn may be that we are, in a sense, going along for a deep-space ride.

"Dawn is taking us all on a virtual trip through the cosmos. It's not just a mission by the JPL team, or by NASA, or by the U.S and its partner countries. It's a mission of humankind -- something that represents all of us who share a spirit of adventure and curiosity, a passion for exploration. It's an extension of ourselves into the universe."

As one Star Trek crew member with particularly pointy ears would say -- "Fascinating."

Explore further

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Source: Science@NASA, by Dauna Coulter
Citation: How Capt. Kirk Changed the World (2010, May 5) retrieved 15 September 2019 from
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May 05, 2010
Gotta give it to the trekkies though, perhaps Rayman would not have found out about ion propulsion otherwise?

May 05, 2010
"Dawn will thrust for 5 1/2 years!" says Rayman. "It's already been thrusting for 591 days. That's 62% of the time it's been in space."
2000 days x 250 g / d = 500 Kg of xenon. does the probe really carry this much fuel or, (I suspect) the engine does not operate all the time.

May 05, 2010
According to wikipedia it carries 425kg of fuel which would give it over 4,5 years at maximum thrust (and, obviously, longer if it doesn't operate at maxium for all that time).


May 06, 2010
"...Powered with a futuristic sounding new technology called "ion propulsion..."
Futuristic, even in sounding????
Space time anomalies must have occurred near Physorg headquarters. Ion propulsion had been investigated long before most of the current crop of editors had developed further than the 2-cells stage.

May 06, 2010
@skepticus. Right on. Thanks for the chuckles.

"this spacecraft will perform space moves rivaling those of the Enterprise."

Not even close. Launched on top of a primitive solid fuel rocket (NOT like the future of star trek) on 9-27-07 it still has a year to go before it reaches Vesta. Four years from here to the asteroid belt. Pretty much not even close to warp factor zero. This is like the fictional galaxy class starship Enterprise how? Oh wait, it's fuel efficient enough that it can boost itself out of orbit on the right trajectory to intercept and orbit another nearby asteroid. Gee, we're awfully impressed down here. Whatever. Cassini has been zig-zagging through the Saturn system at will for several years now.

Writing in a manner that grabs the readers attention and teaches them a little something in the process is a good thing. This article, however, is mere sensationalism with little substance. I might even know less about the Dawn mission than I did before.

May 06, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

May 06, 2010
@skepticus. .... Cassini has been zig-zagging through the.... This article, however, is mere sensationalism with little substance.

You are definitely NOT invited to our next ST party!
Science without humor is science without heart.

May 06, 2010
About the only humorous thing I've read on here is skepticus' comment. I guess somebody found some humor in my comment as well. But where's the humor in this article?

Is this the punchline?

"As one Star Trek crew member with particularly pointy ears would say -- "Fascinating.""

wow, that's soooooo funny. /sarc

Sorry, but geeking out over a science fiction show does not constitute humor in my world, although witnessing the geekiness itself is pretty funny in a certain twisted way.


May 06, 2010
Strange article and stranger still that they never got around to wondering where startrek got the term from in the first place.

I was reading about ion drives and other things attributed to Startrek long before they appeared in Startrek.

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