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Forum:Satellites - Robotic Probes
Topic:NASA's Dawn mission to asteroids Vesta and Ceres
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The images were obtained by a framing camera during a 30-minute period and show about 30 degrees of a rotation. The pixel size in these images is approaching the resolution of the best Hubble Space Telescope images of Vesta.

"Like strangers in a strange land, we're looking for familiar landmarks," said Jian-Yang Li, a Dawn participating scientist from the University of Maryland, College Park. "The shadowy spot is one of those – it appears to match a feature, known as 'Feature B,' from images of Vesta taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope."

Before orbiting Vesta on July 16, Dawn will gently slow down to about 75 mph (120 kph). NASA is expecting to release more images on a weekly basis, with more frequent images available once the spacecraft begins collecting science at Vesta.

"Vesta is coming more and more into focus," said Andreas Nathues, framing camera lead investigator, based at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany. "Dawn's framing camera is working exactly as anticipated."

The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, 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 were developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germay.

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin made significant contributions in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering in Braunschweig. The framing camera project is funded by the Max Planck Society, DLR and NASA.

Robert PearlmanNASA update
NASA Probe Nears Position for Year-Long Stay at Giant Asteroid

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 (JPL) 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, there will be approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) between them. 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 the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). "We can't wait for Dawn to peel back the layers of time and reveal the early history of our solar system."

Dawn's three instruments are all functioning and appear to be properly calibrated. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, for example, has started to obtain images of Vesta that are larger than a few pixels in size. During the initial reconnaissance orbit, at approximately 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers), the spacecraft will get a broad overview of Vesta with color pictures and data in different wavelengths of reflected light. The spacecraft will move into a high altitude mapping orbit, about 420 miles (680 kilometers) above the surface to systematically map the parts of Vesta's surface illuminated by the sun; collect stereo images to see topographic highs and lows; acquire higher resolution data to map rock types at the surface; and learn more about Vesta's thermal properties.

Dawn then will move even closer, to a low-altitude mapping orbit approximately 120 miles (200 kilometers) above the surface. The primary science goals of this orbit are to detect the byproducts of cosmic rays hitting the surface and help scientists determine the many kinds of atoms there, and probe the protoplanet's internal structure. As Dawn spirals away from Vesta, it will pause again at the high-altitude mapping orbit altitude. Because the sun's angle on the surface will have progressed, scientists will be able to see previously hidden terrain while obtaining different views of surface features.

"We've packed our year at Vesta chock-full of science observations to help us unravel the mysteries of Vesta," said Carol Raymond, Dawn's deputy principal investigator at JPL. Vesta is considered a protoplanet, or body that never quite became a full-fledged planet.

Dawn launched in September 2007. Following a year at Vesta, the spacecraft will depart for its second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, in July 2012. Dawn's mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, 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 spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission team.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Spacecraft To Enter Large Asteroid's Orbit On July 15

On July 15, NASA's Dawn spacecraft will begin a prolonged encounter with the asteroid Vesta, making the mission the first to enter orbit around a main-belt asteroid.

The main asteroid belt lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Dawn will study Vesta for one year, and observations will help scientists understand the earliest chapter of our solar system's history.

As the spacecraft approaches Vesta, surface details are coming into focus, as seen in a recent image taken from a distance of about 26,000 miles (41,000 kilometers).

Engineers expect the spacecraft to be captured into orbit at approximately 10 p.m. PDT Friday, July 15. They expect to hear from the spacecraft and confirm that it performed as planned during a scheduled communications pass that starts at approximately 11:30 p.m. PDT on Saturday, July 16. When Vesta captures Dawn into its orbit, engineers estimate there will be approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) between them. At that point, the spacecraft and asteroid will be approximately 117 million miles (188 million kilometers) from Earth.

"It has taken nearly four years to get to this point," said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Our latest tests and check-outs show that Dawn is right on target and performing normally."

Engineers have been subtly shaping Dawn's trajectory for years to match Vesta's orbit around the sun. Unlike other missions, where dramatic propulsive burns put spacecraft into orbit around a planet, Dawn will ease up next to Vesta. Then the asteroid's gravity will capture the spacecraft into orbit. However, until Dawn nears Vesta and makes accurate measurements, the asteroid's mass and gravity will only be estimates. The Dawn team will refine the exact moment of orbit capture over the next few days.

Launched in September 2007, Dawn will depart for its second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, in July 2012. The spacecraft will be the first to orbit two bodies in our solar system.

Dawn's mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate'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 spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission team.

DChudwinNASA has announced that the Dawn spacecraft is orbiting the asteroid Vesta.
NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Enters Orbit Around Asteroid Vesta

NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Saturday became the first probe ever to enter orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Above: NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 9, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 26,000 miles (41,000 kilometers) away from Vesta, which is also considered a protoplanet because it is a large body that almost became a planet. Each pixel in the image corresponds to roughly 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers).

Dawn will study the asteroid, named Vesta, for a year before departing for a second destination, a dwarf planet named Ceres, in July 2012. Observations will provide unprecedented data to help scientists understand the earliest chapter of our solar system. The data also will help pave the way for future human space missions.

"Today, we celebrate an incredible exploration milestone as a spacecraft enters orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt for the first time," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "Dawn's study of the asteroid Vesta marks a major scientific accomplishment and also points the way to the future destinations where people will travel in the coming years. President Obama has directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and Dawn is gathering crucial data that will inform that mission."

The spacecraft relayed information to confirm it entered Vesta's orbit, but the precise time this milestone occurred is unknown at this time. The time of Dawn's capture depended on Vesta's mass and gravity, which only has been estimated until now. The asteroid's mass determines the strength of its gravitational pull. If Vesta is more massive, its gravity is stronger, meaning it pulled Dawn into orbit sooner. If the asteroid is less massive, its gravity is weaker and it would have taken the spacecraft longer to achieve orbit. With Dawn now in orbit, the science team can take more accurate measurements of Vesta's gravity and gather more accurate timeline information.

Dawn, which launched in September 2007, is on track to become the first spacecraft to orbit two solar system destinations beyond Earth. The mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The University of California, Los Angeles, is responsible for the overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission's team. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Dawn Spacecraft Returns Close-Up Image Of Asteroid Vesta

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has returned the first close-up image after beginning its orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta. On Friday, July 15, Dawn became the first probe to enter orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The image taken for navigation purposes shows Vesta in greater detail than ever before. When Vesta captured Dawn into its orbit, there were approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) between the spacecraft and asteroid. Engineers estimate the orbit capture took place at 10 p.m. PDT.

Vesta is 330 miles (530 kilometers) in diameter and the second most massive object in the asteroid belt. Ground- and space-based telescopes have obtained images of Vesta for about two centuries, but they have not been able to see much detail on its surface.

"We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system," said Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell from the University of California, Los Angeles. "This region of space has been ignored for far too long. So far, the images received to date reveal a complex surface that seems to have preserved some of the earliest events in Vesta's history, as well as logging the onslaught that Vesta has suffered in the intervening eons."

Vesta is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth. Vesta and its new NASA neighbor are currently approximately 117 million miles (188 million kilometers) away from Earth. The Dawn team will begin gathering science data in August. Observations will provide unprecedented data to help scientists understand the earliest chapter of our solar system. The data also will help pave the way for future human space missions.

After traveling nearly four years and 1.7 billion miles (2.8 billion kilometers), Dawn also accomplished the largest propulsive acceleration of any spacecraft, with a change in velocity of more than 4.2 miles per second (6.7 kilometers per second), due to its ion engines. The engines expel ions to create thrust and provide higher spacecraft speeds than any other technology currently available.

"Dawn slipped gently into orbit with the same grace it has displayed during its years of ion thrusting through interplanetary space," said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "It is fantastically exciting that we will begin providing humankind its first detailed views of one of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system."

Although orbit capture is complete, the approach phase will continue for about three weeks. During approach the Dawn team will continue a search for possible moons around the asteroid; obtain more images for navigation; observe Vesta's physical properties; and obtain calibration data.

In addition, navigators will measure the strength of Vesta's gravitational tug on the spacecraft to compute the asteroid's mass with much greater accuracy than has been previously available. That will allow them to refine the time of orbit insertion.

Dawn will spend one year orbiting Vesta, then travel to a second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, arriving in February 2015. The mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

UCLA is responsible for Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission's team.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Begins Science Orbits of Vesta

NASA's Dawn spacecraft, the first ever to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt, is spiraling towards its first of four intensive science orbits. That initial orbit of the rocky world Vesta begins Aug. 11, at an altitude of nearly 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) and will provide in-depth analysis of the asteroid. Vesta is the brightest object in the asteroid belt as seen from Earth and is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth.

The Dawn team unveiled the first full-frame image of Vesta taken on July 24:

This image was taken at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). Images from Dawn's framing camera, taken for navigation purposes and as preparation for scientific observations, are revealing the first surface details of the giant asteroid. These images go all the way around Vesta, since the giant asteroid turns on its axis once every five hours and 20 minutes.

"Now that we are in orbit around one of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system, we can see that it's a unique and fascinating place," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

After traveling nearly four years and 1.7 billion miles (2.8 billion kilometers), Dawn has been captured by Vesta's gravity, and there currently are 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) between the asteroid and the spacecraft. The giant asteroid and its new neighbor are approximately 114 million miles (184 million kilometers) away from Earth.

"We have been calling Vesta the smallest terrestrial planet," said Chris Russell, Dawn's principal investigator at UCLA. "The latest imagery provides much justification for our expectations. They show that a variety of processes were once at work on the surface of Vesta and provide extensive evidence for Vesta's planetary aspirations."

Engineers still are working to determine the exact time that Dawn entered Vesta's orbit, but the team has reported an approximate orbit insertion time of 9:47 p.m. PDT on July 15 (12:47 a.m. EDT on July 16).

In addition to the framing camera, Dawn's instruments include the gamma ray and neutron detector and the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer. The gamma ray and neutron detector uses 21 sensors with a very wide field of view to measure the energy of subatomic particles emitted by the elements in the upper yard (meter) of the asteroid's surface. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer will measure the surface mineralogy of both Vesta and Dawn's next target, the dwarf planet Ceres. The spectrometer is a modification of a similar one flying on the European Space Agency's Rosetta and Venus Express missions.

Dawn also will make another set of scientific measurements at Vesta and Ceres using the spacecraft's radio transmitter in tandem with sensitive antennas on Earth. Scientists will monitor signals from Dawn and later Ceres to detect subtle variations in the objects' gravity fields. These variations will provide clues about the interior structure of these bodies by studying the mass distributed in each gravity field.

"The new observations of Vesta are an inspirational reminder of the wonders unveiled through ongoing exploration of our solar system," said Jim Green, planetary division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Dawn launched in September 2007. Following a year at Vesta, the spacecraft will depart in July 2012 for Ceres, where it will arrive in 2015. Dawn's mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's Asteroid Photographer Beams Back Science Data

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has completed a graceful spiral into the first of four planned science orbits during the spacecraft's yearlong visit to Vesta. The spacecraft started taking detailed observations on Aug. 11 at 9:13 a.m. PDT (12:13 a.m. EDT), which marks the official start of the first science-collecting orbit phase at Vesta, also known as the survey orbit.


Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Above: This anaglyph image of Vesta's equator was put together from two clear filter images, taken on July 24, 2011 by the framing camera instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft.

Survey orbit is the initial and highest orbit, at roughly 1700 miles (2700 kilometers) above the surface, which will provide an overview or "big picture" perspective of the giant asteroid.

The primary objective of survey orbit is to image the surface with near-global coverage in visible and infrared wavelengths with the mapping spectrometer, also known as VIR. Dawn also will be using its framing camera to collect image mosaics that complement the VIR spectral data to produce geologic and compositional maps of Vesta's surface. Ultrasensitive measurements of the spacecraft's motion using radio signals will allow improved understanding of the giant asteroid's gravity field. Dawn's gamma ray and neutron detector will continue to collect background data.

The survey phase is planned to last 20 days. Each orbit takes almost three days, which will provide the spacecraft seven trips around Vesta. After survey orbit, Dawn will resume thrusting, taking about a month to spiral down gently to its next science orbit for an even closer view. That orbit, known as High Altitude Mapping Orbit, or HAMO, begins in late September. Dawn will spend about a month in HAMO, circling around Vesta in half a day, rather than three. Dawn will orbit more than 60 times during HAMO, allowing the camera to fully map the illuminated portion of Vesta at even higher resolution, and enable the science team to generate stereo images.

SpaceAholicNASA release
Dawn Gets Extra Time to Explore Vesta

NASA's Dawn mission has received official confirmation that 40 extra days have been added to its exploration of the giant asteroid Vesta, the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt. The mission extension allows Dawn to continue its scientific observations at Vesta until Aug. 26, while still arriving at the dwarf planet Ceres at the same originally scheduled target date in February 2015.

"We are leveraging our smooth and successful operations at Vesta to provide for even more scientific discoveries for NASA and the world." said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "This extra time will allow us to extend our scientific investigation and learn more about this mysterious world."

The extension will not require any new funding, and will draw on financial reserves that have been carefully managed by the Dawn project. The flexibility provided by the spacecraft's use of efficient ion propulsion system allows it to maintain its originally planned Ceres arrival.

The extension allows for extra observations at Dawn's current low-altitude mapping orbit (average altitude 130 miles or 210 kilometers), which will now last until May 1. The additional time enables the gamma ray and neutron detector to build the best possible maps of the elemental composition of Vesta's surface and improve data for the gravity experiment, the two primary scientific investigations at the low-altitude orbit. The spacecraft's camera and spectrometer are also obtaining additional high-resolution images.

Additional time will also be spent in the planned second high-altitude mapping orbit later this summer. When Dawn arrived at Vesta in July 2011, much of the northern hemisphere was in shadow. But with the passage of time, more of that area will bask in sunshine.

"Dawn has beamed back to us such dazzling Vestan vistas that we are happy to stay a little longer and learn more about this special world," said Christopher Russell, Dawn's principal investigator at UCLA. "While we have this one-of-a-kind opportunity to orbit Vesta, we want to make the best and most complete datasets that we can."

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Dawn Mission Reveals Secrets of Large Asteroid

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has provided researchers with the first orbital analysis of the giant asteroid Vesta, yielding new insights into its creation and kinship with terrestrial planets and Earth's moon.

Vesta now has been revealed as a special fossil of the early solar system with a more varied, diverse surface than originally thought. Scientists have confirmed a variety of ways in which Vesta more closely resembles a small planet or Earth's moon than another asteroid. Results appear in today's edition of the journal Science.

"Dawn's visit to Vesta has confirmed our broad theories of this giant asteroid's history, while helping to fill in details it would have been impossible to know from afar," said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Dawn's residence at Vesta of nearly a year has made the asteroid's planet-like qualities obvious and shown us our connection to that bright orb in our night sky."

Scientists now see Vesta as a layered, planetary building block with an iron core – the only one known to survive the earliest days of the solar system. The asteroid's geologic complexity can be attributed to a process that separated the asteroid into a crust, mantle and iron core with a radius of approximately 68 miles (110 kilometers) about 4.56 billion years ago. The terrestrial planets and Earth's moon formed in a similar way.

Dawn observed a pattern of minerals exposed by deep gashes created by space rock impacts, which may support the idea the asteroid once had a subsurface magma ocean. A magma ocean occurs when a body undergoes almost complete melting, leading to layered building blocks that can form planets. Other bodies with magma oceans ended up becoming parts of Earth and other planets.

Data also confirm a distinct group of meteorites found on Earth did, as theorized, originate from Vesta. The signatures of pyroxene, an iron- and magnesium-rich mineral, in those meteorites match those of rocks on Vesta's surface. These objects account for about 6 percent of all meteorites seen falling on Earth.

This makes the asteroid one of the largest single sources for Earth's meteorites. The finding also marks the first time a spacecraft has been able to visit the source of samples after they were identified on Earth.

Scientists now know Vesta's topography is quite steep and varied. Some craters on Vesta formed on very steep slopes and have nearly vertical sides, with landslides occurring more frequently than expected.

Another unexpected finding was that the asteroid's central peak in the Rheasilvia basin in the southern hemisphere is much higher and wider, relative to its crater size, than the central peaks of craters on bodies like our moon. Vesta also bears similarities to other low-gravity worlds like Saturn's small icy moons, and its surface has light and dark markings that don't match the predictable patterns on Earth's moon.

"We know a lot about the moon and we're only coming up to speed now on Vesta," said Vishnu Reddy, a framing camera team member at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. "Comparing the two gives us two storylines for how these fraternal twins evolved in the early solar system."

Dawn has revealed details of ongoing collisions that battered Vesta throughout its history. Dawn scientists now can date the two giant impacts that pounded Vesta's southern hemisphere and created the basin Veneneia approximately 2 billion years ago and the Rheasilvia basin about 1 billion years ago. Rheasilvia is the largest impact basin on Vesta.

"The large impact basins on the moon are all quite old," said David O'Brien, a Dawn participating scientist from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz. "The fact that the largest impact on Vesta is so young was surprising."

Launched in 2007, Dawn began exploring Vesta in mid-2011. The spacecraft will depart Vesta on August 26 for its next study target, the dwarf planet Ceres, in 2015.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
Dawn departs the giant asteroid Vesta

Mission controllers received confirmation today (Sept. 5) that NASA's Dawn spacecraft has escaped from the gentle gravitational grip of the giant asteroid Vesta. Dawn is now officially on its way to its second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres.

Dawn departed from Vesta at about 11:26 p.m. PDT on Sept. 4 (2:26 a.m. EDT on Sept. 5). Communications from the spacecraft via NASA's Deep Space Network confirmed the departure and that the spacecraft is now traveling toward Ceres.

"As we respectfully say goodbye to Vesta and reflect on the amazing discoveries over the past year, we eagerly look forward to the next phase of our adventure at Ceres, where even more exciting discoveries await,” said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Launched on Sept. 27, 2007, Dawn slipped into orbit around Vesta on July 15, 2011 PDT (July 16 EDT). Over the past year, Dawn has comprehensively mapped this previously uncharted world, revealing an exotic and diverse planetary building block. The findings are helping scientists unlock some of the secrets of how the solar system, including our own Earth, was formed.

Dawn spiraled away from Vesta as gently as it arrived. It is expected to pull into its next port of call, Ceres, in early 2015.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
Dawn Delivers New Image of Ceres

As NASA's Dawn spacecraft closes in on Ceres, new images show the dwarf planet at 27 pixels across, about three times better than the calibration images taken in early December. These are the first in a series of images that will be taken for navigation purposes during the approach to Ceres.

Over the next several weeks, Dawn will deliver increasingly better and better images of the dwarf planet, leading up to the spacecraft's capture into orbit around Ceres on March 6. The images will continue to improve as the spacecraft spirals closer to the surface during its 16-month study of the dwarf planet.

Above: The Dawn spacecraft observed Ceres for an hour on Jan. 13, 2015, from a distance of 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers). A little more than half of its surface was observed at a resolution of 27 pixels. This animated GIF shows bright and dark features.

"We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The best images of Ceres so far were taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004. This most recent images from Dawn, taken January 13, 2015, at about 80 percent of Hubble resolution, are not quite as sharp. But Dawn's images will surpass Hubble's resolution at the next imaging opportunity, which will be at the end of January.

"Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters," said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.

Ceres is the largest body in the main asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter. It has an average diameter of 590 miles (950 kilometers), and is thought to contain a large amount of ice. Some scientists think it's possible that the surface conceals an ocean.

Dawn's arrival at Ceres will mark the first time a spacecraft has ever visited a dwarf planet.

"The team is very excited to examine the surface of Ceres in never-before-seen detail," said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We look forward to the surprises this mysterious world may bring."

The spacecraft has already delivered more than 30,000 images and many insights about Vesta, the second most massive body in the asteroid belt. Dawn orbited Vesta, which has an average diameter of 326 miles (525 kilometers), from 2011 to 2012. Thanks to its ion propulsion system, Dawn is the first spacecraft ever targeted to orbit two deep-space destinations.

Robert PearlmanNASA photo release
Dawn Captures Sharper Images of Ceres

Craters and mysterious bright spots are beginning to pop out in the latest images of Ceres from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. These images, taken Feb. 12 at a distance of 52,000 miles (83,000 kilometers) from the dwarf planet, pose intriguing questions for the science team to explore as the spacecraft nears its destination.

"As we slowly approach the stage, our eyes transfixed on Ceres and her planetary dance, we find she has beguiled us but left us none the wiser," said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at UCLA. "We expected to be surprised; we did not expect to be this puzzled."

Dawn will be gently captured into orbit around Ceres on March 6. As the spacecraft delivers better images and other data, the science team will be investigating the nature and composition of the dwarf planet, including the nature of the craters and bright spots that are coming into focus. The latest images, which have a resolution of 4.9 miles (7.8 kilometers) per pixel, represent the sharpest views of Ceres to date.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Spacecraft Nears Historic Dwarf Planet Arrival

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has returned new images captured on approach to its historic orbit insertion at the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn will be the first mission to successfully visit a dwarf planet when it enters orbit around Ceres on Friday, March 6.

"Dawn is about to make history," said Robert Mase, project manager for the Dawn mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Our team is ready and eager to find out what Ceres has in store for us."

Recent images show numerous craters and unusual bright spots that scientists believe tell how Ceres, the first object discovered in our solar system's asteroid belt, formed and whether its surface is changing. As the spacecraft spirals into closer and closer orbits around the dwarf planet, researchers will be looking for signs that these strange features are changing, which would suggest current geological activity.

"Studying Ceres allows us to do historical research in space, opening a window into the earliest chapter in the history of our solar system," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division at the agency's Headquarters in Washington. "Data returned from Dawn could contribute significant breakthroughs in our understanding of how the solar system formed."

Dawn began its final approach phase toward Ceres in December. The spacecraft has taken several optical navigation images and made two rotation characterizations, allowing Ceres to be observed through its full nine-hour rotation. Since Jan. 25, Dawn has been delivering the highest-resolution images of Ceres ever captured, and they will continue to improve in quality as the spacecraft approaches.

Sicilian astronomer Father Giuseppe Piazzi spotted Ceres in 1801. As more such objects were found in the same region, they became known as asteroids, or minor planets. Ceres was initially classified as a planet and later called an asteroid. In recognition of its planet-like qualities, Ceres was designated a dwarf planet in 2006, along with Pluto and Eris.

Ceres is named for the Roman goddess of agriculture and harvests. Craters on Ceres will similarly be named for gods and goddesses of agriculture and vegetation from world mythology. Other features will be named for agricultural festivals.

Launched in September 2007, Dawn explored the giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, capturing detailed images and data about that body. Both Vesta and Ceres orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter, in the main asteroid belt. This two-stop tour of our solar system is made possible by Dawn's ion propulsion system, its three ion engines being much more efficient than chemical propulsion.

"Both Vesta and Ceres were on their way to becoming planets, but their development was interrupted by the gravity of Jupiter," said Carol Raymond, deputy project scientist at JPL. "These two bodies are like fossils from the dawn of the solar system, and they shed light on its origins."

Ceres and Vesta have several important differences. Ceres is the most massive body in the asteroid belt, with an average diameter of 590 miles (950 kilometers). Ceres' surface covers about 38 percent of the area of the continental United States. Vesta has an average diameter of 326 miles (525 kilometers), and is the second most massive body in the belt. The asteroid formed earlier than Ceres and is a very dry body. Ceres, in contrast, is estimated to be 25 percent water by mass.

"By studying Vesta and Ceres, we will gain a better understanding of the formation of our solar system, especially the terrestrial planets and most importantly the Earth," said Raymond. "These bodies are samples of the building blocks that have formed Venus, Earth and Mars. Vesta-like bodies are believed to have contributed heavily to the core of our planet, and Ceres-like bodies may have provided our water."

"We would not be able to orbit and explore these two worlds without ion propulsion," Mase said. "Dawn capitalizes on this innovative technology to deliver big science on a small budget."

Robert PearlmancollectSPACE
Dawn over Ceres: NASA craft enters orbit around dwarf planet

NASA's Dawn probe has entered orbit... again.

The first robotic probe to circle two different extraterrestrial worlds, Dawn slipped into orbit around Ceres, the smallest known dwarf planet and largest object in the asteroid belt, on Friday (March 6).

"Confirmed: I am in orbit around Ceres," Dawn's managers announced using the mission's Twitter account.

The spacecraft was 38,000 miles (61,000 kilometers) from Ceres when it was captured by the dwarf planet's gravity at about 7:39 a.m. EST (1239 GMT).

Mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California received a signal from the spacecraft at 8:36 a.m. EST (1336 GMT) that Dawn was healthy and thrusting with its solar electric ion engine, the indicator Dawn had entered orbit as planned.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
Dawn in Excellent Shape One Month After Ceres Arrival

Since its capture by the gravity of dwarf planet Ceres on March 6, NASA's Dawn spacecraft has performed flawlessly, continuing to thrust with its ion engine as planned. The thrust, combined with Ceres' gravity, is gradually guiding the spacecraft into a circular orbit around the dwarf planet. All of the spacecraft's systems and instruments are in excellent health.

Dawn has been following its planned trajectory on the dark side of Ceres — the side facing away from the sun — since early March. After it entered orbit, the spacecraft's momentum carried it to a higher altitude, reaching a maximum of 46,800 miles (75,400 kilometers) on March 18. Today, Dawn is about 26,000 miles (42,000 kilometers) above Ceres, descending toward the first planned science orbit, which will be 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) above the surface.

The next optical navigation images of Ceres will be taken on April 10 and April 14, and are expected to be available online after initial analysis by the science team. In the first of these, the dwarf planet will appear as a thin crescent, much like the images taken on March 1, but with about 1.5 times higher resolution. The April 14 images will reveal a slightly larger crescent in even greater detail. Once Dawn settles into the first science orbit on April 23, the spacecraft will begin the intensive prime science campaign.

By early May, images will improve our view of the entire surface, including the mysterious bright spots that have captured the imaginations of scientists and space enthusiasts alike. What these reflections of sunlight represent is still unknown, but closer views should help determine their nature. The regions containing the bright spots will likely not be in view for the April 10 images; it is not yet certain whether they will be in view for the April 14 set.

On May 9, Dawn will complete its first Ceres science phase and begin to spiral down to a lower orbit to observe Ceres from a closer vantage point.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
Dawn Glimpses Ceres' North Pole

After spending more than a month in orbit on the dark side of dwarf planet Ceres, NASA's Dawn spacecraft has captured several views of the sunlit north pole of this intriguing world. These images were taken on April 10 from a distance of 21,000 miles (33,000 kilometers), and they represent the highest-resolution views of Ceres to date.

Subsequent images of Ceres will show surface features at increasingly better resolution.

Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, marking the first time a spacecraft has orbited a dwarf planet. Previously, the spacecraft explored giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months from 2011 to 2012. Dawn has the distinction of being the only spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial targets.

Ceres, with an average diameter of about 590 miles (950 kilometers), is the largest body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn has been using its ion propulsion system to maneuver to its first science orbit at Ceres, which it will reach on April 23. The spacecraft will remain at a distance of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) from the dwarf planet until May 9. Afterward, it will make its way to lower orbits.

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