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. The large asteroid is known as a protoplanet – a celestial body that almost formed into a planet.
At the start of this three-month final approach to this massive body in the asteroid belt, Dawn is 752,000 miles (1.21 million kilometers) from Vesta, or about three times the distance between the Earth and the moon. During the approach phase, the spacecraft’s main activity will be thrusting with a special, hyper-efficient ion engine that uses electricity to ionize and accelerate xenon to generate thrust. The 12-inch-wide ion thrusters provide less thrust than conventional engines, but will provide propulsion for years during the mission and provide far greater capability to change velocity.
“We feel a little like Columbus approaching the shores of the New World,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, based at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).
Dawn previously navigated by measuring the radio signal between the spacecraft and Earth, and used other methods that did not involve Vesta. But as the spacecraft closes in on its target, navigation requires more precise measurements. By analyzing where Vesta appears relative to stars, navigators will pin down its location and enable engineers to refine the spacecraft’s trajectory. Using its ion engine to match Vesta’s orbit around the sun, the spacecraft will spiral gently into orbit around the asteroid. When Dawn gets approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) from Vesta, the asteroid’s gravity will capture the spacecraft in orbit.
Scientists will search the framing camera images for possible moons around Vesta. None of the images from ground-based and Earth-orbiting telescopes have seen any moons, but Dawn will give scientists much more detailed images to determine whether small objects have gone undiscovered.
The gamma ray and neutron detector instrument also will gather information on cosmic rays during the approach phase, providing a baseline for comparison when Dawn is much closer to Vesta. Simultaneously, Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer will take early measurements to ensure it is calibrated and ready when the spacecraft enters orbit around Vesta.
Dawn’s odyssey, which will take it on a 3-billion-mile journey, began on Sept. 27, 2007, with its launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will stay in orbit around Vesta for one year. After another long cruise phase, Dawn will arrive at its second destination, an even more massive body in the asteroid belt called Ceres, in 2015.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington. Dawn is a project of SMD’s Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science.
Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the Dawn spacecraft.
The framing cameras have been developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau in Germany, with significant contributions by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering in Braunschweig. NASA, the Max Planck Society and DLR fund the framing camera project.
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