Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dawn Nears Start of Year-Long Stay at Giant Asteroid

Dawn Nears Start of Year-Long Stay at Giant Asteroid - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is on track to begin the first extended visit to a large asteroid. The mission expects to go into orbit around Vesta on July 16 and begin gathering science data in early August. Vesta resides in the main asteroid belt and is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth.

"The spacecraft is right on target," said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We look forward to exploring this unknown world during Dawn's one-year stay in Vesta's orbit."



After traveling nearly four years and 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion kilometers), Dawn is approximately 96,000 miles (155,000 kilometers) away from Vesta. When Vesta captures Dawn into its orbit on July 16, there will be approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) between them. When orbit is achieved, they will be approximately 117 million miles (188 million kilometers) away from Earth.

After Dawn enters Vesta's orbit, engineers will need a few days to determine the exact time of capture. Unlike other missions where a dramatic, nail-biting propulsive burn results in orbit insertion around a planet, Dawn has been using its placid ion propulsion system to subtly shape its path for years to match Vesta's orbit around the sun.

Images from Dawn's framing camera, taken for navigation purposes, show the slow progress toward Vesta. They also show Vesta rotating about 65 degrees in the field of view. The images are about twice as sharp as the best images of Vesta from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, but the surface details Dawn will obtain are still a mystery.

"Navigation images from Dawn's framing camera have given us intriguing hints of Vesta, but we're looking forward to the heart of Vesta operations, when we begin officially collecting science data," said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, at UCLA. "We can't wait for Dawn to peel back the layers of time and reveal the early history of our solar system."