Dawn Journal Blogs

Dawn Journal Blogs

As NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbits and explores its second target, dwarf planet Ceres, to provide scientists with a window into the dawn of the solar system, mission director and chief engineer Marc Rayman shares a monthly update on the mission's progress. Learn more about the Dawn mission on the JPL Missions database.


Haulani Crater in color

Dear Glutdawnous Readers,

The distant dwarf planet that Dawn is circling is full of mystery and yet growing ever more familiar. Ceres, which only last year was hardly more than a fuzzy blob against the stars, is now a richly detailed world, and our portrait grows more elaborate every day. Having greatly surpassed all of its original objectives, the reliable explorer is gathering still more data from its unique vantage point. Everyone who hungers for new knowledge about the cosmos or for bold adventures far from Earth can share in the sumptuous feast Dawn has been serving.

One of the major objectives of the mission was to photograph 80 percent of Ceres' vast landscape with a resolution of 660 feet (200 meters) per pixel. That would provide 150 times the clarity of the powerful Hubble Space Telescope. Dawn has now photographed 99.8 percent with a resolution of 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel.


Dawn captured this picture of Haulani crater in cycle 6 of its third mapping orbit at 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). The crater is shown in a new false-color version above. Its well-defined shape indicates it is relatively young, the impact that formed it having occurred in recent geological times. It displays a substantial amount of bright material, which scientists have identified as some form of salt. The same crater as viewed by Dawn from three times higher altitude is here. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

This example of Dawn's extraordinary productivity may appear to be the limit of what it could achieve. After all, the spaceship is orbiting at an altitude of only 240 miles (385 kilometers), closer to the ground than the International Space Station is to Earth, and it will never go lower for more pictures. But it is already doing more.

Since April 11, instead of photographing the scenery directly beneath it, Dawn has been aiming its camera to the left and forward as it orbits and Ceres rotates. By May 25, it will have mapped most of the globe from that angle. Then it will start all over once more, looking instead to the right and forward from May 27 through July 10. The different perspectives on the terrain make stereo views, which scientists can combine to bring out the full three dimensionality of the alien world. Dawn already accomplished this in its third mapping orbit from four times its current altitude, but now that it is seeing the sights from so much lower, the new topographical map will be even more accurate.


Dawn captured this view of Oxo Crater on Jan. 16 from an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). Although it is a modest six miles (10 kilometers) across, it is a particularly interesting crater. This is the only location (so far) on Ceres where Dawn has clearly detected water. Oxo is the second brightest area on Ceres. Only Occator Crater is brighter. Oxo also displays a uniquely large "slump" in its rim, where a mass of material has dropped below the surface. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn is also earning extra credit on its assignment to measure the energy of gamma rays and neutrons. We have discussed before how the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) can reveal the atomic composition down to about a yard (meter) underground, and last month we saw initial findings about the distribution of hydrogen. However, Ceres' nuclear glow is very faint. Scientists already have three times as much GRaND data from this low altitude as they had required, and both spectrometers in the instrument will continue to collect data. In effect, Dawn is achieving a longer exposure, making its nuclear picture of Ceres brighter and sharper.

In December we explained how using the radio signal to track the probe's movements allows scientists to chart the gravity field and thereby learn about the interior of Ceres, revealing regions of higher and lower density. Once again, Dawn performed even better than expected and achieved the mission's planned accuracy in the third mapping orbit. Because the strength of the dwarf planet's gravitational tug depends on the distance, even finer measurements of how it varies from location to location are possible in this final orbit. Thanks to the continued smooth operation of the mission, scientists now have a gravitational map fully twice as accurate as they had anticipated. With additional measurements, they may be able to squeeze out a little more detail, perhaps improving it by another 20 percent before reaching the method's limit.


Dawn took this picture on Feb. 8 at an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). Prominent in the center is part of a crater wall, which shows many scars from subsequent impacts, indicating it is old. Two sizable younger craters with bright material, which is likely some kind of salt, are evident inside the larger crater. Compare the number and size of craters in this scene with those in the younger scene below showing an area of the same size. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn has dramatically overachieved in acquiring spectra at both visible and infrared wavelengths. We have previously delved into how these measurements reveal the minerals on the ground and what some of the interesting discoveries are. Having already acquired more than seven times as many visible spectra and 21 times as many infrared spectra as originally called for, the spacecraft is adding to its riches with additional measurements. We saw in January that VIR has such a narrow view that it will never see all of Ceres from this close, so it is programmed to observe features that have caught scientists' interest based on the broad coverage from higher altitudes.


Dawn took this picture on Feb. 16 (eight days after the picture above) at an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). It shows a region northwest of Occator Crater, site of the famous bright region (which may become one of the most popular tourist destinations on Ceres). (You can locate this area in the upper right of the mosaic shown last month.) Compare the number and size of craters in this scene with those in the older scene above showing an area of the same size. There are fewer craters here, because the material ejected from the impact that excavated Occator resurfaced the area nearby, erasing the craters that had formed earlier. Because Occator is relatively young (perhaps 80 million years old), there has not been enough time for as many new craters to form as in most other areas on Ceres, including the one shown in the previous picture, that have been exposed to pelting from interplanetary debris for much longer. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn's remarkable success at Ceres was not a foregone conclusion. Of course, the flight team has confronted the familiar challenges people encounter every day in the normal routine of piloting an ion-propelled spaceship on a multibillion-mile (multibillion-kilometer) interplanetary journey to orbit and explore two uncharted worlds. But the mission was further complicated by the loss of two of the spacecraft's four reaction wheels, as we have recounted before. (In full disclosure, the devices aren’t actually lost. We know precisely where they are. But given that one stopped functioning in 2010 and the other in 2012, they might as well be elsewhere in the universe; they don’t do Dawn any good.) Without three of these units to control its orientation in space, the robot has relied on its limited supply of hydrazine, which was not intended to serve this function. But the mission's careful stewardship of the precious propellant has continued to exceed even the optimistic predictions, allowing Dawn good prospects for carrying on its fruitful work. In an upcoming Dawn Journal, we will discuss how the last of the dwindling supply of hydrazine may be used for further discoveries.

In the meantime, Dawn is continuing its intensive campaign to reveal the dwarf planet's secrets, and as it does so, it is passing several milestones. The adventurer has now been held in Ceres' tender but firm gravitational embrace longer than it was in orbit around Vesta. (Dawn is the only spacecraft ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, and its mission would have been impossible without ion propulsion.) The spacecraft provided us with about 31,000 pictures of Vesta, and it has now acquired the same number of Ceres.

For an interplanetary traveler, terrestrial days have little meaning. They are merely a memory of how long a faraway planet takes to turn on its axis. Dawn left that planet long ago, and as one of Earth's ambassadors to the cosmos, it is an inhabitant of deep space. But for those who keep track of its progress yet are still tied to Earth, on May 3 the journey will be pi thousand days long. (And for our nerdier friends and selves, it will be shortly after 6:47 p.m. PDT.)

By any measure, Dawn has already accomplished an extraordinary mission, and there is more to look forward to as its ambitious expedition continues.

Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.73 AU (346 million miles, or 558 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,455 times as far as the moon and 3.70 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and two minutes to make the round trip.

TAGS: CERES, DAWN, MISSION, SPACECRAFT, VESTA, DWARF PLANET

  • Marc Rayman
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Occator Crater

Dear Resplendawnt Readers,

One year after taking up its new residence in the solar system, Dawn is continuing to witness extraordinary sights on dwarf planet Ceres. The indefatigable explorer is carrying out its intensive campaign of exploration from a tight orbit, circling its gravitational master at an altitude of only 240 miles (385 kilometers).

Even as we marvel at intriguing pictures and other discoveries, scientists are still in the early stages of putting together the pieces of the big puzzle of how (and where) Ceres formed, what its subsequent history has been, what geological processes are still occurring on this alien world and what all that reveals about the solar system.

For many readers who have not visited Ceres on their own, Occator Crater is the most mysterious and captivating feature. (To resolve the mystery of how to pronounce it, listen to the animation below.) As Dawn peered ahead at its destination in the beginning of 2015, the interplanetary traveler observed what appeared to be a bright spot, a shining beacon guiding the way for a ship sailing on the celestial seas. With its mesmerizing glow, the uncharted world beckoned, and Dawn answered the cosmic invitation by venturing in for a closer look, entering into Ceres' gravitational embrace. The latest pictures are one thousand times sharper than those early views. What was not so long ago a single bright spot has now come into focus as a complex distribution of reflective material in a 57-mile (92-kilometer) crater.


Dawn took these pictures of Occator Crater on March 16. This is the most reflective area on Ceres. The exposure was optimized for the brightest part of the scene, revealing details that were indiscernible in longer exposures and in photos from higher altitudes. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Scientists are still working on refining their understanding of this striking region. As we described in December, it seems that following the powerful impact that excavated Occator Crater, underground briny water reached the surface. The detailed photographs show many fractures cutting across the bright areas, and perhaps they provided a conduit. Water, whether as liquid or ice, would not last long there in the cold vacuum, eventually subliming. When the water molecules disperse, either escaping from Ceres into space or falling back to settle elsewhere, the dissolved salts are left behind. This reflective residue covers the ground, making the spellbinding and beautiful display Dawn now reveals.

While the crater is estimated to be a geological youngster at 80 million years old, that is an extremely long time for the material to remain so reflective. Exposed for so long to cosmic radiation and pelting from the rain of debris from space, it should have darkened. Scientists don't know (yet) what physical process are responsible, but perhaps it was replenished long after the crater itself formed, with more water, carrying dissolved salts, finding its way to the surface. As their analyses of the photos and spectra continue, scientists will gain a clearer picture and be able to answer this and other questions.


The high resolution photo of the central feature of Occator Crater is combined here with color data from the third mapping orbit. With enhanced color to highlight subtle variations, this illustrates the red tinge that we described in December. (The scene would not look this colorful to your eye, even if you and your eye were fortunate enough to be in a position to see it.) Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI/LPI

These latest Occator pictures did not come easily. Orbiting so close to Ceres, the adventurer’s camera captures only a small scene at a time, and it is challenging to cover the entirety of the expansive terrain. (Perhaps it comes as a surprise to those who have not read at least a few of the 123 Dawn Journals that precede this one that operating a spacecraft closer to a faraway dwarf planet than the International Space Station is to Earth is not as easy as, say, thinking about it.) But the patience and persistence in photographing the exotic landscapes have paid off handsomely.

We now have high resolution pictures of essentially all of Ceres save the small area around the south pole cloaked in the deep dark of a long winter night. Seasons last longer on Ceres than on Earth, and Dawn may not operate there long enough for the sun to rise at the south pole. By the beginning of southern hemisphere spring in November 2016, Dawn's mission to explore the first dwarf planet discovered may have come to its end.


This is an accelerated excerpt from this complete animation showing Dawn's accumulated photographic coverage of Ceres during the lowest altitude mapping campaign from December 16 to March 11. To ensure that it can see all latitudes, Dawn travels in a polar orbit, flying from the north pole to the south pole over the illuminated hemisphere and back to the north over the nighttime hemisphere. Each orbital revolution takes 5.4 hours. Meanwhile, Ceres rotates from east to west, completing one Cerean day in just over nine hours. The combined motion causes the spacecraft's path over the landscape to follow these graceful curves. Consecutive orbits pass over widely separated regions because Ceres continues to rotate beneath Dawn while the spaceship glides over the hidden terrain of the night side. The swaths that don't fit the typical pattern are the extra pictures Dawn took as it turned away from the scenery below it, as described in January. The spacecraft does not take pictures on every orbit, because sometimes it performs other functions (such as pointing its main antenna to Earth), so that causes gaps that are filled in later. Note that the center of the popular Occator Crater (slightly above and to the right of center), just happened to be one of the last places to be imaged as Dawn progressively built its high-resolution map. Animation credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

In addition to photographing Ceres, Dawn conducts many other scientific observations, as we described in December and January. Among the probe's objectives at Ceres is to provide information for scientists to understand how much water is there, where it is, what form it is in and what role it plays in the geology.

We saw that extensive measurements of the faint nuclear radiation can help identify the atomic constituents. While the analysis of the data is complicated, and much more needs to be done, a picture is beginning to emerge from Dawn's neutron spectrometer (part of the gamma ray and neutron detector, GRaND). These subatomic particles are emitted from the nuclei of atoms buried within about a yard (meter) of the surface. Some manage to penetrate the material above them and fly into space, and the helpful ones then meet their fate upon hitting GRaND in orbit above. (Most others, however, will continue to fly through interplanetary space, decaying into a trio of other subatomic particles in less than an hour.) Before it escapes from the ground, a neutron's energy (and, equivalently, its speed) is strongly affected by any encounters with the nuclei of hydrogen atoms (although other atomic interactions can change the energy too). Therefore, the neutron energies can indicate to scientists the abundance of hydrogen. Among the most common forms in which hydrogen is found is water (composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom), which can occur as ice or tied up in hydrated minerals.

GRaND shows Ceres is rich in hydrogen. Moreover, it detects more neutrons in an important energy range near the equator than near the poles, likely indicating there is more hydrogen, and hence more (frozen) water, in the ground at the high latitudes. Although Ceres is farther from the sun than Earth, and you would not consider it balmy there, it still receives some warmth. Just as at Earth, the sun's heating is less effective closer to the poles than at low latitudes, so this distribution of ice in the ground may reflect the temperature differences. Where it is warmer, ice close to the surface would have sublimed more quickly, thus depleting the inventory compared to the cooler ground far to the north or south.


This map, centered over the northern hemisphere, uses color to depict the rate at which GRaND detected neutrons of a particular energy from an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). (The underlying image of Ceres is based on pictures Dawn took with its camera at a higher altitude.) Red indicates more neutrons than blue. The relative deficiency of neutrons near the north pole (and near the south pole, although not shown here) is because hydrogen is more abundant there. The hydrogen atoms rob the neutrons of energy, so GRaND does not find as many at the special energy used for this study. (It does find them at other energies.) Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Dawn spends most of its time measuring neutrons (and gamma rays), so it is providing a great deal of new data. And as scientists conduct additional analyses, they will learn more about the ice and other materials beneath the surface.

Another spectrometer is providing more tantalizing clues about the composition of Ceres, which is seen to vary widely. As the dwarf planet is not simply a huge rock but is a geologically active world, it is no surprise that it is not homogeneous. We discussed in December that the infrared mapping spectrometer had shown that minerals known as phyllosilicates are common on Ceres. Further studies of the data show evidence for the presence of two types: ammoniated phyllosilicates (described in December) and magnesium phyllosilicates. Scientists also find evidence of compounds known as carbonates, minerals that contain carbon and oxygen. There is also a dark substance in the mix that has not been identified yet.

And in one place (so far) on Ceres, this spectrometer has directly observed water, not below the surface but on the ground. The infrared signature shows up in a small crater named Oxo. (For the pronunciation, listen to the animation below.) As with the neutron spectra, it is too soon to know whether the water is in the form of ice or is chemically bound up in minerals.

At six miles (10 kilometers) in diameter, Oxo is small in comparison to the largest craters on Ceres, which are more than 25 times wider. (While geologists consider it a small crater, you might not agree if it formed in your backyard. Also note that when we showed Oxo Crater before, the diameter was slightly different. The crater's size has not changed since then, but as we receive sharper pictures, our measurements of feature sizes do change.) Dawn's first orbital destination, the fascinating protoplanet Vesta, is smaller than Ceres and yet has two craters far broader than the largest on Ceres. Based on studies of craters observed throughout the solar system, scientists have established methods of calculating the number and sizes of craters that could be formed on planetary surfaces. Those techniques show that Ceres is deficient in large craters. That is, more should have formed than appear in Dawn's pictures. Many other bodies (including Vesta and the moon) seem to preserve their craters for much longer, so this may be a clue about internal geological processes on Ceres that gradually erase the large craters.

Scientists are still in the initial stages of digesting and absorbing the tremendous wealth of data Dawn has been sending to Earth. The benefit of lingering in orbit (enabled by the remarkable ion propulsion system), rather than being limited to a brief glimpse during a fast flyby, is that the explorer can undertake much more thorough studies, and Dawn is continuing to make new measurements.

As recently as one year ago, controllers (and this writer) had great concern about the spacecraft's longevity given the loss of two reaction wheels, which are used for controlling the ship's orientation. And in 2014, when the flight team worked out the intricate instructions Dawn would follow in this fourth and final mapping orbit, they planned for three months of operation. That was deemed to be more than enough, because Dawn only needed half that time to accomplish the necessary measurements. Experienced spacecraft controllers recognize that there are myriad ways beautiful plans could go awry, so they planned for more time in order to ensure that the objectives would be met even if anomalies occurred. They also were keenly aware that the mission could very well conclude after three months of low altitude operations, with Dawn using up the last of its hydrazine. But their efforts since then to conserve hydrazine proved very effective. In addition, the two remaining wheels have been operating well since they were powered on in December, further reducing the consumption of the precious propellant.

As it turned out, operations have been virtually flawless in this orbit, and the first three months yielded a tremendous bounty, even including some new measurements that had not been part of the original plans. And because the entire mission at Ceres has gone so well, Dawn has not expended as much hydrazine as anticipated.


This is an excerpt from an animation showing some of the highlights of Dawn's exploration of Ceres so far, including Occator and Oxo craters, both of which are discussed above. You can also hear your correspondent's pronunciation of the names of those and other features on Ceres. Full animation and transcript. Animation credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn is now performing measurements that were not envisioned long in advance but rather developed only in the past two months, when it was apparent that the expedition could continue. And since March 19, Dawn has been following a new strategy to use even less hydrazine. Instead of pointing its sensors straight down at the scenery passing beneath it as the spacecraft orbits and Ceres rotates, the probe looks a little to the left. The angle is only five degrees (equal to the angle the minute hand of a clock moves in only 50 seconds, or less than the interval between adjacent minute tick marks), but that is enough to decrease the use of hydrazine and thus extend the spacecraft's lifetime. (We won't delve into the reason here. But for fellow nerds, it has to do with the alignment of the axes of the operable reaction wheels with the plane in which Dawn rotates to keep its instruments pointed at Ceres and its solar arrays pointed at the sun. The hydrazine saving depends on the wheels' ability to store angular momentum and applies only in hybrid control, not in pure hydrazine control. Have fun figuring out the details. We did!)

The angle is small enough now that the pictures will not look substantially different, but they will provide data that will help determine the topography. (Measurements of gravity and the neutron, gamma ray and infrared spectra are insensitive to this angle.) Dawn took pictures at a variety of angles during the third mapping orbit at Ceres (and in two of the mapping orbits at Vesta, HAMO1 and HAMO2) in order to get stereo views for topography. That worked exceedingly well, and photos from this lower altitude will allow an even finer determination of the three dimensional character of the landscape in selected regions. Beginning on April 11, Dawn will look at a new angle to gain still another perspective. That will actually increase the rate of hydrazine expenditure, but the savings now help make that more affordable. Besides, this is a mission of exploration and discovery, not a mission of hydrazine conservation. We save hydrazine when we can in order to spend it when we need it. Dawn's charge is to use the hydrazine to accomplish important scientific objectives and to pursue bold, exciting goals that lift our spirits and fuel our passion for knowledge and adventure. And that is exactly what it is has done and what it will continue to do.

Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.90 AU (362 million miles, or 583 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,505 times as far as the moon and 3.90 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and five minutes to make the round trip.

TAGS: CERES, DAWN, MISSION, SPACECRAFT, VESTA, DWARF PLANET

  • Marc Rayman
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Sekhet Crater

Dear Indawnbitably Successful Readers,

A story of intense curiosity about the cosmos, passionate perseverance and bold ingenuity, a story more than two centuries in the making, has reached an extraordinary point. It begins with the discovery of dwarf planet Ceres in 1801 (129 years before its sibling Pluto; each was designated a planet for a time). Protoplanet Vesta was discovered in 1807. Following 200 years of telescopic observations, Dawn's daring mission was to explore these two uncharted worlds, the largest, most massive residents of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. And now, as of February 2016, the spacecraft has accomplished all of the objectives that NASA defined for it in 2004, even before construction began (and before the very first Dawn Journal, nearly a decade ago).

More than eight years after leaving its erstwhile planetary home behind for an ambitious deep space adventure, Dawn has now collected all of the data originally planned. Indeed, even prior to this third intercalary day of its expedition, the probe had already actually sent back a great deal more data for all investigations, significantly exceeding not only the original goals but also new ones added after the ship had set sail on the interplanetary seas. While scientists have a great deal of work still ahead to translate the bounty of data into knowledge, which is the greatest joy of science, the spacecraft can continue its work with the satisfaction that it has fulfilled its purpose and achieved an outstandingly successful mission.

Dawn took this picture of the rim of Datan crater on Jan. 7 in its fourth mapping orbit at 240 miles (385 kilometers). It flew over the same location on Oct. 2, 2015, in its third mapping orbit at 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). To see the improvement in detail, compare this with the earlier image (presented fully in November but reproduced in part below to make comparison easier). The bright material to the right of the crater rim here may help you locate this area within the wider image. Full image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA



Dawn took this picture in its third mapping orbit at an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) in mapping cycle #5 of its third mapping orbit. The prominent triplet of overlapping craters nicely displays relative ages, which are apparent by which ones affect others and hence which ones formed later. The largest crater, Geshtin, is 48 miles (77 kilometers) across and is the oldest. (Geshtin is a Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian goddess of the vine.) A subsequent impact that excavated Datan crater, which is 37 miles (60 kilometers) in diameter, obliterated a large section of Geshtin's rim and made its own crater wall in Geshtin's interior. (Datan is one of the Polish gods who protect the fields but apparently not this crater.) Still later, Datan itself was the victim of a sizable impact on its rim (although not large enough to have merited an approved name this early in the geological studies of Ceres). Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn is the only spacecraft ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, which would have been impossible without its advanced ion propulsion system. It is the only spacecraft ever to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt. It is also the only spacecraft ever to orbit massive bodies (apart from the sun and Earth) that had not been visited first by a flyby spacecraft to characterize the gravity and other properties. (By the way, Ceres is one of eight solar system bodies that operating spacecraft are orbiting now. The others are the sun, Venus, Earth, the moon, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Mars and Saturn.)

Now in its fourth and final mapping orbit at Ceres, at an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers), Dawn is closer to the exotic terrain than the International Space Station is to Earth. The benefit of being in orbit is that the probe can linger rather than take only a brief look during a fast flyby. Even though Dawn has met its full list of objectives at Ceres, it continues to return new, valuable pictures and other measurements to provide even greater insight into this relict from the dawn of the solar system. For example, it is acquiring more nuclear spectra with its gamma ray and neutron detector, sharpening its picture of some atomic elements on Ceres. In addition, taking advantage of its unique vantage point, Dawn is collecting more infrared spectra of locations that are of special interest and soon will also take color photos and stereo photos (as it did in the third mapping orbit) of selected areas.

Dawn has completed more than 600 revolutions since taking up residence one year ago. The first few orbits took several weeks each, but as the spacecraft descended and Ceres' gravitational embrace grew more firm, its orbital velocity increased and the orbital period decreased. Now circling in less than five and a half hours, Dawn has made 370 orbits since reaching this altitude on Dec. 7.


On Jan. 1, Dawn observed this scene at 78 degrees south latitude. This deep in the southern hemisphere, the sun is low on the horizon (it is three degrees north of the equator). The long shadows emphasize the topography in this densely cratered (and therefore old) region. Landslides are evident in the large crater wall on the left. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The pace of observations here is higher than in the previous mapping orbits, where the orbital periods were longer. The spacecraft flies over the landscape faster now, and being closer to the ground, its instruments discern much more detail but capture a smaller area. Mission controllers have developed intricate plans for observing Ceres, but those plans depend on the spacecraft being at the right place at the right time. As we will see below, however, sometimes it may not be.

Suppose, for example, the intent is to observe a particular feature, perhaps the bright center of Occator crater, the lonely, towering mountain Ahuna Mons, the fractures in Dantu crater or artificial structures that definitively prove the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, utterly transforming our understanding of the cosmos and shattering our naive perspectives on life in the universe. Trajectory analysis indicates when Dawn will fly over the designated location, and engineers will program it to take pictures or infrared spectra at that time. They will also include some margin, so they may program it to start 10 minutes before and end 10 minutes after. But they can't afford to put in too much margin. Data storage on the spacecraft is limited, so other geological features could not be observed. Also, transmitting data to Earth requires pointing the main antenna at that distant planet instead of pointing sensors at Ceres, so it would be unwise to collect much more than is necessary.

Even if devoting additional time (and data) to trying to observe the desired place were feasible, it wouldn't necessarily solve the problem. Dawn travels in a polar orbit, which is the only way to ensure that it passes over all latitudes. While Dawn soars from north to south over the sunlit hemisphere making its observations, the dwarf planet itself rotates on its axis, so the ground moves from east to west. If the spacecraft arrives at the planned orbital location a little early or a little late, the feature of interest may not even be beneath it but rather could be too far east or west, out of view of the instruments. In that case, increasing the duration of the observation period doesn't help.

All of that is why, as we saw last month, it requires more pictures to fully map Ceres than you might expect. Many pictures may have to be taken in order to fill in gaps, and quite a few of the pictures overlap with others. Nevertheless, Dawn has done an excellent job. The spacecraft has photographed 99.6 percent of the dwarf planet from this low altitude. (If you aren't regularly visiting the image gallery, you are missing out on some truly out-of-this-world scenes.)

Dawn LAMO Image 33

Dawn photographed this scene on Jan. 4 as it was looking toward the horizon (as explained last month). Fluusa, the large crater from the center to the upper left is 37 miles (60 kilometers) in diameter. (Fluusa was a goddess of flowers for the Oscans of southern Italy who honored her to make plants bloom and bear fruit.) Its degraded features and dense cratering show it is old. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The flight team devises very detailed plans that tell the spacecraft what to do every second, including where to point and what data to collect with each sensor. When the observation plans are developed, they are checked and double-checked. Then they are translated into the appropriate software that the robotic ship will understand, and these instructions are checked and double-checked. That is integrated with all the other software that will be beamed to the spacecraft covering the same period of time, any conflicts are resolved and then the final version is checked and, well, you know.

This process is very involved, and it is usually well over a month between the formulation and the execution of the plan. During that time, Dawn's orbit can deviate slightly from the expert navigators' mathematical predictions, preventing the spacecraft from flying over the desired targets. There are several reasons the actual orbit may differ from the orbit used for developing the plan. (We have seen related examples of this, including as Dawn approached Mars, when it orbited Vesta and when it spiraled from one mapping orbit to another.) Let's briefly consider two.

One reason is that we do not have perfect knowledge of the variations in the strength of Ceres' gravitational pull from one location to another. We have discussed before that measuring these tiny irregularities in the gravity field provides insight into the distribution of mass within the dwarf planet that gives rise to them. The team has mapped the hills and valleys of the field quite well and even better than expected. Still, the remaining small uncertainty can lead to slight differences between what navigators calculate Dawn's motion will be and what its actual motion will be as it is buffeted by the gravitational currents.

A second source of discrepancy is that Dawn's own activities distort its orbit. Every time the reaction control system expels a tiny burst of hydrazine to control the spacecraft's orientation, keeping it pointed at its target, the force not only affects the orientation but also nudges the probe in its orbit, slowing it down or speeding it up very slightly. It's up to the spacecraft to decide exactly when to make these small adjustments, and it is not possible for controllers to predict their timing. (In a similar way, when you are driving, you occasionally move the steering wheel to keep going the direction you want, even if is straight ahead. It would be impossible to forecast each tiny movement, because they all depend on what has already happened plus the exact conditions at the moment.) The details of the reaction control system activity also depend on the use of the novel hybrid control scheme, which the joint Orbital/JPL team developed because of the failure of two of the spacecraft's four reaction wheels. The effect of each small firing of hydrazine is very small, but they can add up.

Dawn LAMO Image 20

Dawn had this view of two unnamed craters on Jan. 1. The craters are about 10 miles (16 kilometers) and 3 miles (5 kilometers) in diameter. The distinct features show these are relatively young craters, not yet degraded by subsequent impacts or geological processes intrinsic to Ceres. The lighting in the craters shows that the sun is to the right, illuminating the left side of the depressions and missing the right side. Click on the image (or follow the link to the full image) and look carefully inside and around the larger crater. There are many small features that are light on the right and dark on the left. Therefore, they aren't depressions like these two craters. Rather, they rise up, catching the light as it comes in from the right, and their left sides are in shadow. These are large blocks from the impact that excavated the crater. Each pixel in this picture is 120 feet (35 meters). Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

It took about a month in this mapping orbit to discover many of the subtleties of the gravity field and gain experience with how hybrid control affects the orbit. But even before descending to this altitude, the operations team understood the nature of these effects and was well prepared to deal with them.

They devised several strategies, all of which are being used to good effect. One of the ways to account for Dawn's actual orbit differing from its planned orbit is simply to change the orbit. Simply? Well, not really. It turns out to that to analyze the orbit and then maneuver to correct it in a timely way is a surprisingly complicated process, but, come to think of it, what isn't complicated when flying a spaceship around a distant, alien world? Nevertheless, every three weeks, the flight team makes a careful assessment of the orbit and determines whether a small refinement with the ion propulsion system is in order. For technical reasons, if maneuvers are needed, they will be executed in pairs, so mission planners have scheduled two windows (each 12 hours long and separated by eight days) about every 23 days.

Adjustments to resynchronize the actual orbit with the predicted orbit that formed the basis of the exploration plan are known as “orbit maintenance maneuvers.” Succumbing to instincts developed during their long evolutionary history, engineers refer to them by an acronym: OMM. (As the common thread among team members is their technical training and passion for the exploration of the cosmos, and not Buddhism, the term is spoken by naming the letters, not pronouncing it as if it were a means of achieving inner peace. Instead, it may be thought of as a means of achieving orbital tranquility and harmony.)

For both Vesta and Ceres, trajectory analyses long in advance determined that OMMs would not be needed in the higher orbits, so no windows were included in those schedules. There have been three OMM opportunities since arriving at the lowest altitude above Ceres, but only the first was needed. Dawn performed the pair on Dec. 31-Jan. 1 and on Jan. 8 with its famously efficient ion engine. The orbit was good enough the next two times that OMMs were deemed unnecessary. It is certain that some future OMMs will be required. Your faithful correspondent provides frequent (and uncharacteristically concise) reports on Dawn's day-to-day activities, including OMMs.

By the end of the Jan. 8 OMM, Dawn's ion propulsion system had accumulated 2,019 days of operation in space, more than 5.5 years. During that time, the effective change in speed was 24,600 mph (39,600 kilometers per hour). (We have discussed in detail that this is not Dawn's current speed but rather the amount by which the ion engines have changed it.) This is uniquely high for a spacecraft to accomplish with its own propulsion system and validates our description of ion propulsion as delivering acceleration with patience. (The previous record holder, Deep Space 1, achieved 9,600 mph, or 15,000 kilometers per hour.)

The effect of Dawn's gentle ion thrusting during its mission has been nearly the same as that of the entire Delta II 7925H-9.5 rocket, with its nine external rocket engines, first stage, second stage and third stage. To get started on its interplanetary adventure, Dawn's rocket boosted it from Cape Canaveral to out of Earth orbit with only four percent higher velocity than Dawn subsequently added on its own with its ion engines.

As Dawn and Earth follow their own independent orbits around the sun (Dawn's now tied permanently to its gravitational master, Ceres), next month they will reach their greatest separation of the entire mission. On March 4 (about one Earth year after Ceres took hold of Dawn), on opposite sides of the solar system, they will be 3.95278 AU (367.434 million miles, or 591.328 million kilometers) from each other. (For those of you with full schedules, note that the maximum separation will be 5:40 a.m. PST.) They won't be this far apart again until Feb. 6, 2025, long after Dawn has ceased operating (as discussed below). The figure below depicts the arrangement next month.

March Geometry

Earth's and Ceres' orbits will bring them to their maximum separation on March 4. Earth's orbit is shown in green and Ceres' is in purple. Dawn's interplanetary trajectory is in blue. Compare this figure with the ones depicting Dawn and Earth on opposite sides of the sun in December 2014, Dawn equidistant from Earth and the sun in April 2015, and Dawn and Earth at their minimum separation in July 2015. Also note that Earth has completed one full loop around the sun in the year since March 2015, when Dawn arrived at Ceres. During the same period, Ceres, traveling in a higher heliocentric orbit, has completed only about a fifth of a revolution. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dawn has faced many challenges in its unique voyage in the forbidding depths of space, but it has surmounted all of them. It has even overcome the dire threat posed by the loss of two reaction wheels (the second failure occurring in orbit around Vesta 3.5 years and 1.3 billion miles, or 2.0 billion kilometers, ago). With only two operable reaction wheels (and those no longer trustworthy), the ship's remaining lifetime is very limited.

A year ago, the team couldn't count on Dawn even having enough hydrazine to last beyond next month. But the creative methods of conserving that precious resource have proved to be quite efficacious, and the reliable explorer still has enough hydrazine to continue to return bonus data for a while longer. Now it seems highly likely that the spacecraft will keep functioning through the scheduled end of its primary mission on June 30, 2016.

NASA may choose to continue the mission even after that. Such decisions are difficult, as there is literally an entire universe full of interesting subjects to study, but resources are more limited. In any case, even if NASA extended the mission, and even if the two wheels operated without faltering, and even if the intensive campaign of investigating Ceres executed flawlessly, losing not an ounce (or even a gram) of hydrazine to the kinds of glitches that can occur in such a complex undertaking, the hydrazine would be exhausted early in 2017. Clearly an earlier termination remains quite possible.

Regardless of when Dawn's end comes, it will not be a time for regret. The mission has realized its raison d'être and is reaping rewards even beyond those envisioned when it was conceived. It has taken us all on a marvelous interplanetary journey and allowed us to behold previously unseen sights of distant lands. The conclusion of the mission will be a time for gratitude that it was so successful. And until then, every new picture or other measurement adds to the richly detailed portrait of a faraway, exotic world. There is plenty more still to do before this remarkable story draws to a close.

Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.95 AU (367 million miles, or 591 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,475 times as far as the moon and 3.99 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and six minutes to make the round trip.

TAGS: DAWN, MISSION, SPACECRAFT, CERES, DWARF PLANET

  • Marc Rayman
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Animated flight over dwarf planet CeresYoutube video

Dear Spellbindawngs,

A veteran interplanetary traveler is writing the closing chapter in its long and storied expedition. In its final orbit, where it will remain even beyond the end of its mission, at its lowest altitude, Dawn is circling dwarf planet Ceres, gathering an album of spellbinding pictures and other data to reveal the nature of this mysterious world of rock and ice.

Kupalo Crater from LAMO

Dawn captured this view of Kupalo crater on Dec. 20, shortly after beginning the observations from its current low altitude mapping orbit at 240 miles (385 kilometers). (Kupalo is a Slavic harvest deity associated with love and fertility.) This is a relatively young crater, as seen by its sharp, clear features and the paucity of overlying smaller impact craters, which would have formed later. Bright material on the rim and walls may be salts, as explained last month. The crater is 16 miles (26 kilometers) across. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres turns on its axis in a little more than nine hours (one Cerean day). Meanwhile, its new permanent companion, a robotic emissary from Earth, revolves in a polar orbit, completing a loop in slightly under 5.5 hours. It flies from the north pole to the south over the side of Ceres facing the sun. Then when it heads north, the ground beneath it is cloaked in the deep dark of night on a world without a moon (save Dawn itself). As we discussed last month, Dawn's primary measurements do not depend on illumination. It can sense the nuclear radiation (specifically, gamma rays and neutrons) and the gravity field regardless of the lighting. This month, let's take a look at the other measurements our explorer is performing, most of which do depend on sunlight.

Of course the photographs do. Dawn had already mapped Ceres quite thoroughly from higher altitudes. The spacecraft acquired an extensive set of stereo and color pictures in its third mapping orbit. But now that Dawn is only about 240 miles (385 kilometers) high, its images are four times as sharp, revealing new details of the strange and beautiful landscapes.

Our spaceship is closer to Ceres than the International Space Station is to Earth. At that short range, it takes a long time to capture all of the vast territory, because each picture covers a relatively small area. Dawn’s camera sees a square about 23 miles (37 kilometers) on a side, less than one twentieth of one percent of the more than one million square miles (nearly 2.8 million square kilometers). In an ideal world (which is not the one Dawn is in or at), it would take just over two thousand photos from this altitude to see all the sights. However, as we will discuss in more detail next month, it is not possible to control the orbital motion and the pointing of the camera accurately enough to manage without more photos than that.

Most of the time, Dawn is programmed to turn at just the right rate to keep looking at the ground beneath it as it travels, synchronizing its rotation with its revolution around Ceres. It photographs the passing scenery, storing the pictures for later transmission to Earth. But some of the time, it cannot take pictures, because to send its bounty of data, it needs to point its main antenna at that distant planet, home not only to its controllers but also to many others (including you, loyal reader) who share in the thrill of a bold cosmic adventure. Dawn spends about three and a half days (nine Cerean days) with its camera and other sensors pointed at Ceres. Then it radios its findings home for a little more than one day (almost three Cerean days). During these communications sessions, even when it soars over lit terrain, it does not observe the sights below.

Mission planners have devised an intricate plan that should allow nearly complete coverage in about six weeks. To accomplish this, they guided Dawn to a carefully chosen orbit, and it has been doing an exceptionally good job there executing its complex activities.

Floor of Dantu Crater from LAMO
On Dec. 21, in its lowest orbit, at about 240 miles (385 kilometers), Dawn flew over Dantu crater and obtained pictures with four times the clarity of the third mapping orbit, where we saw the entire crater. (Dantu is a timekeeper god who initiates the cycle of planting rites among the Ga people of the Accra Plains of southeastern Ghana.) The bright material here is at the 4 o'clock position, half way from the center to the rim, in the picture shown in November. The network of fractures may have formed when the ground cooled after being heated by the crater-forming impact, or perhaps later when other geological processes caused the crater floor to be uplifted. The crater is about 78 miles (126 kilometers) in diameter. The next picture below shows detail of another part of Dantu. The animation above includes Dantu (as seen from farther away). Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Last month, we marveled at a stunning view that was not the typical perspective of peering straight down from orbit. Sometimes controllers now program Dawn to take a few more pictures after it stops aiming its instruments down, while it starts to turn to aim its antenna to Earth. This clever idea provides bonus views of whatever happens to be in the camera's sights as it slowly rotates from the point beneath the spacecraft off to the horizon. Who doesn't feel the attraction of the horizon and long to know what lies beyond?

Another of Dawn's scientific devices is two different sensors combined into one instrument. Like the camera, the visible and infrared mapping spectrometers (VIR) look at the sunlight reflected from the ground. (As we'll see below, however, VIR also can detect something more.) A spectrometer breaks up light into its constituent colors, just as a prism or a droplet of water does when revealing, quite literally, all the colors of the rainbow. Dawn's visible spectrometer would have a view very much like that. The infrared spectrometer, of course, looks at wavelengths of light our limited eyes cannot see, just as there are wavelengths of sound our limited ears cannot hear (consult with your dog for details).

A spectrometer does more than simply disperse the light into its components, however. It measures the intensity of that light at the different wavelengths. The materials on the surface leave their signature in the sunlight they reflect, making some wavelengths relatively brighter and some dimmer. That characteristic pattern is called a spectrum. By comparing these spectra with spectra measured in laboratories, scientists can infer the nature of the minerals on the ground. We described some of the intriguing conclusions last month.

On Dec. 19, Dawn's orbit took it over a different part of Dantu crater, showing more reflective material on the walls and floor. (This scene is from the right side of the crater as pictured in November.) More of the fractures visible in the picture above are in the upper left of this picture. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

VIR does still more. Rather than record the visible spectrum and the infrared spectrum from a single region, it takes spectra at 256 adjacent locations simultaneously. This would be like taking one column of 256 pixels in a picture and having a separate spectrum for each. By stitching columns together, you could construct the two dimensional picture but with the added dimension of an extensive spectrum at every location. (Because the extra information provides a sort of depth that flat pictures don't have, the result is sometimes called an “image cube.”) This capability to build up an image with spectra everywhere is what makes it a mapping spectrometer. VIR produces a remarkably rich view of its targets!

VIR's spectra contain much finer measurements of the colors and a wider range of wavelengths than the camera's images. In exchange, the camera has sharper vision and so can discern smaller geological features. In more technical terms, VIR achieves better spectral resolution and the camera achieves better spatial resolution. Fortunately, it is not a competition, because Dawn has both, and the instruments yield complementary measurements.

VIR generates a very large volume of data in each snapshot. As a result, Dawn can only capture and store relatively small areas of the dwarf planet with the mapping spectrometers, especially at this low altitude. Scientists have recognized from the first design of the mission that it would not be possible to cover all of Ceres (or Vesta) with VIR from the closer orbits. Nevertheless, Dawn has far exceeded expectations, returning a great many more spectra than anticipated. Still, as long as the spacecraft operates in this final mapping orbit, there will continue to be interesting targets to study with VIR.

Based on the nearly 20 million spectra of Ceres that VIR acquired from higher altitudes, the team has determined that new infrared spectra will provide more insight into the dwarf planet's character than the visible spectra. Because of their composition, the minerals display more salient signatures in infrared wavelengths than visible. The excellent visible spectra from the first three mapping orbits are deemed more than sufficient. Therefore, to make the best use of our faithful probe and to dedicate the resources to what is most likely to yield new knowledge about Ceres, VIR is devoting its share of the mission data in this final orbit to its infrared mapping spectrometer. We have many more exciting discoveries to look forward to!

Crater with Scarps in LAMO
Dawn photographed this unnamed crater on Dec. 23. It is 20 miles (32 kilometers) in diameter and is between Dantu and Rao craters. (See the map here.) Part of this crater is shown at the bottom left of the photo of Dantu we saw in November. The many ridges and steep slopes here may be the result of the crater partially collapsing during its formation. The complex geology evokes an image of a flower (at least for this writer). Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The infrared light Ceres reflects from the sun can tell scientists a great deal about the composition, but they can learn even more from analyzing VIR's measurements. The sun isn't the only source of infrared. Ceres itself is. Many people correctly associate infrared with heat, because warm objects emit infrared light, and the strength at different wavelengths depends on the temperature. That calls for measuring the spectrum! Distant from the sun though it is, Ceres is warmed slightly by the brilliant star, so it has a very faint infrared glow of its own. Scientists can distinguish in VIR's observations between the reflected infrared sunlight and the infrared light Ceres radiates. In essence, VIR can function as a remote thermometer.

Last month, in one of Dawn's best photos yet of Ceres, we considered planning a hike across a breathtaking landscape. In case we do, VIR has shown we should be prepared for chilly conditions. Observed temperatures (all rounded to the nearest multiple of five) during the day on the dwarf planet range from -135 degrees Fahrenheit (-95 degrees Celsius) to -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-35 degrees Celsius). (It is so cold in some locations and times, especially at night, that Ceres produces too little infrared light for VIR to measure. Temperatures below the coldest reported here actually don't register.) This finding provides compelling support for this writer's frequent claim that Ceres is really cool. In addition, knowing the temperatures will be very important for understanding geological processes on this icy, rocky world, just as we know the movement of terrestrial glaciers depends on temperature.

Your loyal correspondent can't -- or, at least, won't -- help but indulge his nerdiness with a brief tangent. The range of temperatures above represent the warmest on Ceres, given that VIR cannot measure lower values. It's amusing, if you have a similar weird sense of humor, that Ceres' average temperature apparently is not that far from what it would be for a black hole of the same mass. We won't delve into the physics here, but such a black hole would be -225 degrees Fahrenheit (-140 degrees Celsius). OK, enough hilarity. Back to Dawn and Ceres...

Ever creative, scientists are attempting another clever method to gain insight into the nature of this exotic orb. When Dawn is at just the right position in its orbit on the far side of Ceres, so that a straight line to Earth passes very close to the limb of Ceres itself, the spacecraft's radio signal will actually hit the dwarf planet. The radio waves interact with the materials on the surface, which can induce an exquisitely subtle distortion. After bouncing off the ground at a grazing angle, the radio signal continues on its way, heading toward Earth. The effect on the signal is much too small to affect the normal communications at all, but specialized equipment at NASA's Deep Space Network designed for this purpose might still be able to detect the tiny changes. The fantastically sensitive antennas measure the properties of the radio waves, and by studying the details, scientists may be able to learn more about the properties of the surface of the distant world. For example, this could help them distinguish between different types of materials (such as ice, rocks, sand, etc.) as well as reveal how rough or smooth the ground is at scales far, far smaller than the camera can discern. This is an extremely challenging measurement, and no small distortions have been detected so far, but always making the best possible use of the resources, scientists continue to look for them.

In addition to those bonus measurements, Dawn remains very productive in acquiring infrared spectra, photographs, gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra plus conducting measurements of the massive body's gravitational field, all of which contribute to unlocking the mysteries of the first dwarf planet ever discovered or explored. The venerable adventurer is in good condition and is operating flawlessly.

Dawn LAMO Image 5

Dawn observed Victa crater on Dec. 19. (Victa was a Roman goddess of food and nourishment.) The crater is 20 miles (32 kilometers) in diameter and so is the same size as the unnamed one shown above. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

We have discussed extensively the failures of two of the four reaction wheels, devices Dawn used to depend on to control its orientation in space. Without three healthy reaction wheels, the probe has had to rely instead on hydrazine propellant expelled from the small jets of the reaction control system. (When Dawn uses its ion engine, that remarkable system does double duty, reducing the need for the hydrazine.)

For most of the time since escaping from Vesta's gravitational clutches in 2012, Dawn has kept the other two reaction wheels in reserve so any remaining lifetime from those devices could offset the high cost of hydrazine propellant to turn and point in this current tight orbit. Those two wheels have been on and functioning flawlessly since Dec. 14, 2015, and every day they operate, they keep the expenditure of the dwindling supply of hydrazine to half of what it would be without them. (Next month we will offer some estimates of how long Dawn might continue to operate.) But the ever-diligent team recognizes another wheel could falter at any moment, and they remain ready to continue the mission with pure hydrazine control after only a short recovery operation. If a third failure is at all like the two that have occurred already, the hapless wheel won't give an indication of a problem until it's too late. A reaction wheel failure evidently is entirely unpredictable. We'll know about it only after it occurs in the remote depths of space where Dawn resides at an alien world.

Earth and Ceres are so far from each other that their motions are essentially independent. The planet and the dwarf planet follow their own separate repetitive paths around the sun. And each carries its own retinue: Earth has thousands of artificial satellites and one prominent natural one, the moon. Ceres has one known satellite. It arrived there in March 2015, and its name is Dawn.

Coincidentally, both reached extremes earlier this month in their elliptical heliocentric orbits. Earth, in its annual journey around our star, was at perihelion, or the closest point to the sun, on Jan. 2, when it was 0.98 AU (91.4 million miles, or 147 million kilometers) away. Ceres, which takes 4.6 years (one Cerean year) for each loop, attained its aphelion, or greatest distance from the sun, on Jan. 6. On that day, it was 2.98 AU (277 million miles, or 445 million kilometers) from the gravitational master of the solar system.

Far, far from the planet where its deep-space voyage began, Dawn is now bound to Ceres, held in a firm but gentle gravitational embrace. The spacecraft continues to unveil new and fascinating secrets there for the benefit of all those who remain with Earth but who still look to the sky with wonder, who feel the lure of the unknown, who are thrilled by new knowledge, and who yearn to know the cosmos.

Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.87 AU (360 million miles, or 580 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,440 times as far as the moon and 3.93 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and four minutes to make the round trip.

TAGS: DAWN, MISSION, SPACECRAFT, CERES, DWARF PLANET

  • Marc Rayman
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Zooming in on Ceres

Dear Transcendawnts,

Dawn is now performing the final act of its remarkable celestial choreography, held close in Ceres’ firm gravitational embrace. The distant explorer is developing humankind’s most intimate portrait ever of a dwarf planet, and it likely will be a long, long time before the level of detail is surpassed.

The spacecraft is concluding an outstandingly successful year 1,500 times nearer to Ceres than it began. More important, it is more than 1.4 million times closer to Ceres than Earth is today. From its uniquely favorable vantage point, Dawn can relay to us spectacular views that would otherwise be unattainable. At an average altitude of only 240 miles (385 kilometers), the spacecraft is closer to Ceres than the International Space Station is to Earth. From that tight orbit, the dwarf planet looks the same size as a soccer ball seen from only 3.5 inches (9.0 centimeters) away. This is in-your-face exploration.

The spacecraft has returned more than 16,000 pictures of Ceres this year (including more than 2,000 since descending to its low orbit this month). One of your correspondent’s favorites (below) was taken on Dec. 10 when Dawn was verifying the condition of its backup camera. Not only did the camera pass its tests, but it yielded a wonderful, dramatic view not far from the south pole. It is southern hemisphere winter on Ceres now, with the sun north of the equator. From the perspective of the photographed location, the sun is near the horizon, creating the long shadows that add depth and character to the scene. And usually in close-in orbits, we look nearly straight down. Unlike such overhead pictures typical of planetary spacecraft (including Dawn), this view is mostly forward and shows a richly detailed landscape ahead, one you can imagine being in — a real place, albeit an exotic one. This may be like the breathtaking panorama you could enjoy with your face pressed to the porthole of your spaceship as you are approaching your landing sight. You are right there. It looks — it feels! — so real and physical. You might actually plan a hike across some of the terrain. And it may be that a visiting explorer or even a colonist someday will have this same view before setting off on a trek through the Cerean countryside.

Dawn had this view of Ceres at 86 degrees south latitude on Dec. 10, only three days after completing its descent to an average orbital altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). Click on the image and allow yourself to be pulled into the scene (and you might meet this writer there). Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Of course, Dawn's objectives include much more than taking incredibly neat pictures, a task at which it excels. It is designed to collect scientifically meaningful photos and other valuable measurements. We'll see more below about what some of the images and spectra from higher altitudes have revealed about Ceres, but first let's take a look at the three highest priority investigations Dawn is conducting now in its final orbit, sometimes known as the low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). While the camera, visible mapping spectrometer and infrared mapping spectrometer show the surface, these other measurements probe beneath.

With the spacecraft this close to the ground, it can measure two kinds of nuclear radiation that come from as much as a yard (meter) deep. The radiation carries the signatures of the atoms there, allowing scientists to inventory some of the key chemical elements of geological interest. One component of this radiation is gamma ray photons, a high energy form of electromagnetic radiation with a frequency beyond visible light, beyond ultraviolet, even beyond X-rays. Neutrons in the radiation are entirely different from gamma rays. They are particles usually found in the nuclei of atoms (for those of you who happen to look there). Indeed, outweighing protons, and outnumbering them in most kinds of atoms, they constitute most of the mass of atoms other than hydrogen in Ceres (and everywhere else in the universe, including in your correspondent).

To tell us what members of the periodic table of the elements are present, Dawn's gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) does more than detect those two kinds of radiation. Despite its name, GRaND is not at all pretentious, but its capabilities are quite impressive. Consisting of 21 sensors, the device measures the energy of each gamma ray photon and of each neutron. (That doesn't lend itself to as engaging an acronym.) It is these gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra that reveal the identities of the atomic species in the ground.

Some of the gamma rays are produced by radioactive elements, but most of them and the neutrons are generated as byproducts of cosmic rays impinging on Ceres. Space is pervaded by cosmic radiation, composed of a variety of subatomic particles that originate outside our solar system. Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field protect the surface (and those who dwell there) from cosmic rays, but Ceres lacks such defenses. The cosmic rays interact with nuclei of atoms, and some of the gamma rays and neutrons that are released escape back into space where they are intercepted by GRaND on the orbiting Dawn.

Unlike the relatively bright light reflected from Ceres's surface that the camera, infrared spectrometer and visible spectrometer record, the radiation GRaND measures is very faint. Just as a picture of a dim object requires a longer exposure than for a bright subject, GRaND's "pictures" of Ceres require very long exposures, lasting weeks, but mission planners have provided Dawn with the necessary time. Because the equivalent of the illumination for the gamma ray and neutron pictures is cosmic rays, not sunlight, regions in darkness are no fainter than those illuminated by the sun. GRaND works on both the day side and the night side of Ceres.

These animations of Ceres rotating and a flyover of Occator crater are from photos Dawn took in its second mapping orbit at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). The false colors are used to highlight very subtle differences in color that your eye generally would not discern but which reveal differences in the nature of the material on the ground. As explained below, the bright areas tend to be slightly blue. Full animation and caption. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

In addition to the gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra, Dawn's other top priority now is measuring Ceres' gravity field. The results will help scientists infer the interior structure of the dwarf planet. The measurements made in the higher altitude orbits turned out to be even more accurate than the team had expected, but now that the probe is as close to Ceres as it will ever go, and so the gravitational pull is the strongest, they can obtain still better measurements.

Gravity is one of four fundamental forces in nature, and its extreme weakness is one of the fascinating mysteries of how the universe works. It feels strong to us (well, most of us) because we don't so easily sense the two kinds of nuclear forces, both of which extend only over extremely short distances, and we generally don't recognize the electromagnetic force. With both positive and negative electrical charges, attractive and repulsive electromagnetic forces often cancel. Not so with gravity. All matter exerts attractive gravity, and it can all add up. The reason gravity -- by far the weakest of the four forces -- is so salient for those of you on or near Earth is that there is such a vast amount of matter in the planet and it all pulls together to hold you down. Dawn overcame that pull with its powerful Delta rocket. Now the principal gravitational force acting on it is the cumulative effect of all the matter in Ceres, and that is what determines its orbital motion.

The spacecraft experiences a changing force both as the inhomogeneous dwarf planet beneath it rotates on its axis and as the craft circles that massive orb. When Dawn is closer to locations within Ceres with greater density (i.e., more matter), the ship feels a stronger tug, and when it is near regions with lower density, and hence less powerful gravity, the attraction is weaker. The spacecraft accelerates and decelerates very slightly as its orbit carries it closer to and farther from the volumes of different density. By carefully and systematically plotting the exquisitely small variations in the probe's motion, navigators can calculate how the mass is distributed inside Ceres, essentially creating an interior map. This technique allowed scientists to establish that Vesta, the protoplanet Dawn explored in 2011-2012, has a dense core (composed principally of iron and nickel) surrounded by a less dense mantle and crust. (That is one of the reasons scientists now consider Vesta to be more closely related to Earth and the other terrestrial planets than to typical asteroids.)

Mapping the orbit requires systems both on Dawn and on Earth. Using the large and exquisitely sensitive antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN), navigators measure tiny changes in the frequency, or pitch, of the spacecraft's radio signal, and that reveals changes in the craft's velocity. This technique relies on the Doppler effect, which is familiar to most terrestrial readers as they hear the pitch of a siren rise as it approaches and fall as it recedes. Other readers who more commonly travel at speeds closer to that of light recognize that the well-known blueshift and redshift are manifestations of the same principle, applied to light waves rather than sound waves. Even as Dawn orbits Ceres at 610 mph (980 kilometers per hour), engineers can detect changes in its speed of only one foot (0.3 meters) per hour, or one five-thousandth of a mph (one three-thousandth of a kilometer per hour). Another way to track the spacecraft is to measure the distance very accurately as it revolves around Ceres. The DSN times a radio signal that goes from Earth to Dawn and back. As you are reminded at the end of every Dawn Journal, those signals travel at the universal limit of the speed of light, which is known with exceptional accuracy. Combining the speed of light with the time allows the distance to be pinpointed. These measurements with Dawn's radio, along with other data, enable scientists to peer deep into the dwarf planet 

Although it is not among the highest scientific priorities, the flight team is every bit as interested in the photography as you are. We are visual creatures, so photographs have a special appeal. They transport us to mysterious, faraway worlds more effectively than any propulsion system. Even as Dawn is bringing the alien surface into sharper focus now, the pictures taken in higher orbits have allowed scientists to gain new insights into this ancient world. Geologists have located more than 130 bright regions, none being more striking than the mesmerizing luster in Occator crater. The pictures taken in visible and infrared wavelengths have helped them determine that the highly reflective material is a kind of salt.


This map of Ceres shows the locations of about 130 bright areas (indicated in blue). Most of them are associated with craters, likely because the reflective material was excavated when the craters were formed. The insets at the top show the two brightest regions, Occator crater on the left and Oxo crater on the right. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

It is very difficult to pin down the specific composition with the measurements that have been analyzed so far. Scientists compare how reflective the scene is at different wavelengths with the reflective properties of likely candidate materials studied in laboratories. So far, magnesium sulfate yields the best match (although it is not definitive). That isn't the type of salt you normally put on your food (or if it is, I'll be wary about accepting the kind invitation to dine in your home), but it is very similar (albeit not identical) to Epsom salts, which have many other familiar uses.

Scientists' best explanation now for the deposits of salt is that when asteroids crash into Ceres, they excavate underground briny water-ice. Once on the surface and exposed to the vacuum of space, even in the freezing cold so far from the sun, the ice sublimes, the water molecules going directly from the solid ice to gas without an intermediate liquid stage. Left behind are the materials that had been dissolved in the water. The size and brightness of the different regions depend in part on how long ago the impact occurred. A very preliminary estimate is that Occator was formed by a powerful collision around 80 million years ago, which is relatively recent in geological times. (We will see in a future Dawn Journal how scientists estimate the age and why the pictures in this low altitude mapping orbit will help refine the value.)

As soon as Dawn's pictures of Ceres arrived early this year, many people referred to the bright regions as "white spots," although as we opined then, such a description was premature. The black and white pictures revealed nothing about the color, only the brightness. Now we know that most have a very slight blue tint. For reasons not yet clear, the central bright area of Occator is tinged with more red. Nevertheless, the coloration is subtle, and our eyes would register white.

Dawn captured this picture of Haulani crater in cycle 6 of its third mapping orbit at 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). (Haulani is one of the Hawaiian plant goddesses). The crater is 21 miles (34 kilometers) in diameter. Its well-defined shape indicates it is relatively young, the impact that formed it having occurred in recent geological times. It displays a substantial amount of bright material, which the latest analyses indicate is a kind of salt, as explained above. The same crater as viewed by Dawn from three times higher altitude is here. Dawn’s next view should be four times as sharp as this photo. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Measurements with both finer wavelength discrimination and broader wavelength coverage in the infrared have revealed still more about the nature of Ceres. Scientists using data from one of the two spectrometers in the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer instrument (VIR) have found that a class of minerals known as phyllosilicates is common on Ceres. As with the magnesium sulfate, the identification is made by comparing Dawn's detailed spectral measurements with laboratory spectra of a great many different kinds of minerals. This technique is a mainstay of astronomy (with both spacecraft and telescopic observations) and has a solid foundation of research that dates to the nineteenth century, but given the tremendous variety of minerals that occur in nature, the results generally are neither absolutely conclusive nor extremely specific.

There are dozens of phyllosilicates on Earth (one well known group is mica). Ceres too likely contains a mixture of at least several. Other compounds are evident as well, but what is most striking is the signature of ammonia in the minerals. This chemical is manufactured extensively on Earth, but few industries have invested in production plants so far from their home offices. (Any corporations considering establishing Cerean chemical plants are invited to contact the Dawn project. Perhaps, however, mining would be a more appropriate first step in a long-term business plan.) 

Ammonia's presence on Ceres is important. This simple molecule would have been common in the material swirling around the young sun almost 4.6 billion years ago when planets were forming. (Last year we discussed this period at the dawn of the solar system.) But at Ceres' present distance from the sun, it would have been too warm for ammonia to be caught up in the planet-forming process, just as it was even closer to the sun where Earth resides. There are at least two possible explanations for how Ceres acquired its large inventory of ammonia. One is that it formed much farther from the sun, perhaps even beyond Neptune, where conditions were cool enough for ammonia to condense. In that case, it could easily have incorporated ammonia. Subsequent gravitational jostling among the new residents of the solar system could have propelled Ceres into its present orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Another possibility is that Ceres formed closer to where it is now but that debris containing ammonia from the outer solar system drifted inward and some of it ultimately fell onto the dwarf planet. If enough made its way to Ceres, the ground would be covered with the chemical, just as VIR observed.

Dawn observed Gaue crater in cycle 5 of its third mapping orbit. (Gaue is a goddess who was the intended recipient of rye offerings in Lower Saxony.) The crater is 50 miles (80 kilometers) across and appears to have a relatively fresh rim and a smooth floor. What may once have been a central peak, common in large craters, apparently collapsed, leaving the central pit evident here. Impact ejecta from Gaue has coated the surrounding terrain, muting the appearance of older features. Full image and caption. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Scientists continue to analyze the thousands of photos and millions of infrared and visible spectra even as Dawn is now collecting more precious data. Next month, we will summarize the intricate plan that apportions time among pointing the spacecraft's sensors at Ceres to perform measurements, its main antenna at Earth to transmit its findings and receive new instructions and its ion engine in the direction needed to adjust its orbit.

The plans described last month for getting started in this fourth and final mapping orbit worked out extremely well. You can follow Dawn's activities with the status reports posted at least twice a week here. And you can see new pictures regularly in the Ceres image gallery. 

We will be treated to many more marvelous sights on Ceres now that Dawn's pictures will display four times the detail of the views from its third mapping orbit. The mapping orbits are summarized in the following table, updated from what we have presented before. (This fourth orbit is listed here as beginning on Dec. 16. In fact, the highest priority work, which is obtaining the gamma ray spectra, neutron spectra and gravity measurements, began on Dec. 7, as explained last month. But Dec. 16 is when the spacecraft started its bonus campaign of measuring infrared spectra and taking pictures. Recognizing that what most readers care about is the photography, regardless of the scientific priorities, that is the date we use here. 

Mapping orbitDawn code nameDatesAltitude in miles (kilometers)Resolution in feet (meters) per pixelResolution compared to HubbleOrbit periodEquivalent distance of a soccer ball
1RC3April 23 - May 98,400 (13,600)4,200 (1,300)2415 days10 feet (3.2 meters)
2SurveyJune 6-302,700 (4,400)1,400 (410)733.1 days3.4 feet (1.0 meters)
3HAMOAug 17 - Oct 23915 (1,470)450 (140)21719 hours14 inches (34 cm)
4LAMODec 16 - end of mission240 (385)120 (35)8305.4 hours3.5 inches (9.0 cm)

Dawn is now well-positioned to make many more discoveries on the first dwarf planet discovered. Jan. 1 will be the 215th anniversary of Giuseppe Piazzi's first glimpse of that dot of light from his observatory in Sicily. Even to that experienced astronomer, Ceres looked like nothing other than a star, except that it moved a little bit from night to night like a planet, whereas the stars were stationary. (For more than a generation after, it was called a planet.) He could not imagine that more than two centuries later, humankind would dispatch a machine on a cosmic journey of more than seven years and three billion miles (five billion kilometers) to reach the distant, uncharted world he descried. Dawn can resolve details more than 60 thousand times finer than Piazzi's telescope would allow. Our knowledge, our capabilities, our reach and even our ambition all are far beyond what he could have conceived, and yet we can apply them to his discovery to learn more, not only about Ceres itself, but also about the dawn of the solar system.

On a personal note, I first saw Ceres through a telescope even smaller than Piazzi's when I was 12 years old. As a much less experienced observer of the stars than he was, and with the benefit of nearly two centuries of astronomical studies between us, I was thrilled! I knew that what I was seeing was the behemoth of the main asteroid belt. But it never occurred to me when I was only a starry-eyed youth that I would be lucky enough to follow up on Piazzi's discovery as a starry-eyed adult, responsible for humankind's first visitor to that fascinating alien world, answering a celestial invitation that was more than 200 years old.

Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.66 AU (340 million miles, or 547 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,360 times as far as the moon and 3.72 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and one minute to make the round trip.

TAGS: DAWN, MISSION, SPACECRAFT, CERES, VESTA, DWARF PLANET

  • Marc Rayman
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Dawn's 4th Mapping Orbit (LAMO)

Dear Superintendawnts and Assisdawnts,

An intrepid interplanetary explorer is now powering its way down through the gravity field of a distant alien world. Soaring on a blue-green beam of high-velocity xenon ions, Dawn is making excellent progress as it spirals closer and closer to Ceres, the first dwarf planet discovered. Meanwhile, scientists are progressing and analyzing the tremendous volume of pictures and other data the probe has already sent to Earth.

Dawn is flying down to an average altitude of about 240 miles (385 kilometers), where it will conduct wide-ranging investigations with its suite of scientific instruments. The spacecraft will be even closer to the rocky, icy ground than the International Space Station is to Earth's surface. The pictures will be four times sharper than the best it has yet taken. The view is going to be fabulous!

Dawn will be so near the dwarf planet that its sensors will detect only a small fraction of the vast territory at a time. Mission planners have designed the complex itinerary so that every three weeks, Dawn will fly over most of the terrain while on the sunlit side. (The neutron spectrometer, gamma ray spectrometer and gravity measurements do not depend on illumination from the sun, but the camera, infrared mapping spectrometer and visible mapping spectrometer do.)

Obtaining the planned coverage of the exotic landscapes requires a delicate synchrony between Ceres' and Dawn's movements. Ceres rotates on its axis every nine hours and four minutes (one Cerean day). Dawn will revolve around it in a little less than five and a half hours, traveling from the north pole to the south pole over the hemisphere facing the sun and sailing northward over the hemisphere hidden in the darkness of night. Orbital velocity at this altitude is around 610 mph (980 kilometers per hour).

Last year we had a preview of the plans for this fourth and final mapping orbit (sometimes also known as the low altitude mapping orbit, or LAMO), and we will present an updated summary next month.

The planned altitude differs from the earlier, tentative value of 230 miles (375 kilometers) for several reasons. One is that the previous notion for the altitude was based on theoretical models of Ceres’ gravity field. Navigators measured the field quite accurately in the previous mapping orbit (using the method outlined here), and that has allowed them to refine the orbital parameters to choreograph Dawn’s celestial pas de deux with Ceres. In addition, prior to Dawn’s investigations, Ceres’ topography was a complete mystery. Hubble Space Telescope had shown the overall shape well enough to allow scientists to determine that Ceres qualifies as a dwarf planet, but the landforms were indiscernible and the range of relative elevations was simply unknown. Now that Dawn has mapped the topography, we can specify the spacecraft’s average height above the ground as it orbits. With continuing analyses of the thousands of stereo pictures taken in August – October and more measurements of the gravity field in the final orbit, we will further refine the average altitude. Finally, we round the altitude numbers to the nearest multiple of five (both for miles and kilometers), because, as we will discuss in a subsequent Dawn Journal, the actual orbit will vary in altitude by much more than that. (We described some of the ups and dawns of the corresponding orbit at Vesta here. The variations at Ceres will not be as large, but the principles are the same.)

Dawn HAMO Image 50
Dawn had this view of Urvara crater in mapping cycle #4 from an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) during the third mapping orbit. (Urvara is a Vedic goddess associated with fertile lands and plants.) The crater is 101 miles (163 kilometers) in diameter. It displays a variety of features, including a particularly bright region on the peak at the center, ridges nearby, a network of fissures, some smooth regions and much rougher terrain. You can locate all the areas shown in this month's photos on the Ceres map presented last month. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

To attain its new orbit, Dawn relies on its trusty and uniquely efficient ion engine, which has already allowed the spacecraft to accomplish what no other has even attempted in the 58-year history of space exploration. This is the only mission ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations. The spaceship orbited the protoplanet Vesta for 14 months in 2011-2012, revealing myriad fascinating details of the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, before its March 2015 arrival in orbit around the most massive. Ion propulsion enables Dawn to undertake a mission that would be impossible without it.

While the ion engine provides 10 times the efficiency of conventional spacecraft propulsion, the engine expends the merest whisper of xenon propellant, delivering a remarkably gentle thrust. As a result, Dawn achieves acceleration with patience, and that patience is rewarded with the capability to explore two of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system. This raises an obvious question: How cool is that? Fortunately, the answer is equally obvious: Incredibly cool!

The efficiency of the ion engine enables Dawn not only to orbit two destinations but also to maneuver extensively around each one, optimizing its orbits to reap the richest possible scientific return at Vesta and Ceres. The gentleness of the ion engine makes the maneuvers gradual and graceful. The spiral descents are an excellent illustration of that.

Dawn began its elegant downward coils on Oct. 23 upon concluding more than two months of intensive observations of Ceres from an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). At that height, Ceres' gravitational hold was not as firm as it will be in Dawn's lower orbit, so orbital velocity was slower. Circling at 400 mph (645 kilometers per hour), it took 19 hours to complete one revolution around Ceres. It will take Dawn more than six weeks to travel from that orbit to its new one. (You can track its progress and continue to follow its activities once it reaches its final orbit with the frequent mission status updates.)

PIA19993: Dawn HAMO Image 51
Dawn took this picture of Dantu crater from an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) during the third mapping orbit, in mapping cycle #4. (Dantu is a timekeeper god who initiates the cycle of planting rites among the Ga people of the Accra Plains of southeastern Ghana. You can find Dantu, but not Ghana, on this map.) The crater is about 78 miles (126 kilometers) across. Note the isolated bright regions, the long fissures, and the zigzag structure at the center. Scientists are working to understand what these indicate about the geological processes on Ceres. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

On Nov. 16, at an altitude of about 450 miles (720 kilometers), Dawn circled at the same rate that Ceres turned. Now the spacecraft is looping around its home even faster than the world beneath it turns.

When ion-thrusting ends on Dec. 7, navigators will measure and analyze the orbital parameters to establish how close they are to the targeted values and whether a final adjustment is needed to fit with the intricate observing strategy. Several phenomena contribute to small differences between the planned orbit and the actual orbit. (See here and here for two of our attempts to elucidate this topic.) Engineers have already thoroughly assessed the full range of credible possibilities using sophisticated mathematical methods. This is a complex and challenging process, but the experienced team is well prepared. In case Dawn needs to execute an additional maneuver to bring its orbital motion into closer alignment with the plan, the schedule includes a window for more ion-thrusting on Dec. 11-13 (concluding on Dawn's 2,999th day in space). In the parlance of spaceflight, this maneuver to adjust the orbit is a trajectory correction maneuver (TCM), and Dawn has experience with them.

The operations team takes advantage of every precious moment at Ceres they can, so while they are determining whether to perform the TCM and then developing the final flight plan to implement it, they will ensure the spacecraft continues to work productively. Dawn carries two identical cameras, a primary and a backup. Engineers occasionally operate the backup camera to verify that it remains healthy and ready to be put into service should the primary camera falter. On Dec. 10, the backup will execute a set of tests, and Dawn will transmit the results to Earth on Dec. 11. By then, the work on the TCM will be complete.

Although it is likely a TCM will be needed, if it turns out to be unnecessary, mission control has other plans for the spacecraft. In this final orbit, Dawn will resume using its reaction wheels to control its orientation. By electrically changing the speed at which these gyroscope-like devices rotate, the probe can control its orientation, stabilizing itself or turning. We have discussed their lamentable history on Dawn extensively, with two of the four having failed. Although such losses could have been ruinous, the flight team formulated and implemented very clever strategies to complete the mission without the wheels. Exceeding their own expectations in such a serious situation, Dawn is accomplishing even more observations at Ceres than had been planned when it was being built or when it embarked on its ambitious interplanetary journey in 2007.

PIA20000: Dawn HAMO Image 57
Dawn took this picture in its third mapping orbit at an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) in mapping cycle #5 of its third mapping orbit. The prominent triplet of overlapping craters nicely displays relative ages, which are apparent by which ones affect others and hence which ones formed later. The largest crater, Geshtin, is 48 miles (77 kilometers) across and is the oldest. (Geshtin is a Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian goddess of the vine.) A subsequent impact that excavated Datan crater, which is 37 miles (60 kilometers) in diameter, obliterated a large section of Geshtin's rim and made its own crater wall in Geshtin's interior. (Datan is one of the Polish gods who protect the fields but apparently not this crater.) Still later, Datan itself was the victim of a sizable impact on its rim (although not large enough to have merited an approved name this early in the geological studies of Ceres). Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Now the mission lifetime is limited by the small supply of conventional rocket propellant, expelled from reaction control system thrusters strategically located around the spacecraft. When that precious hydrazine is exhausted, the robot will no longer be able to point its solar arrays at the sun, its antenna at Earth, its sensors at Ceres or its ion engines in the direction needed to travel elsewhere, so the mission will conclude. The lower Dawn's orbital altitude, the faster it uses hydrazine, because it must rotate more quickly to keep its sensors pointed at the ground. In addition, it has to fight harder to resist Ceres' relentless gravitational tug on the very large solar arrays, creating an unwanted torque on the ship.

Among the innovative solutions to the reaction wheel problems was the development of a new method of orienting the spacecraft with a combination of only two wheels plus hydrazine. In the final orbit, this "hybrid control" will use hydrazine at only half the rate that would be needed without the wheels. Therefore, mission controllers have been preserving the units for this final phase of the expedition, devoting the limited remaining usable life to the time that they can provide the greatest benefit in saving hydrazine. (The accuracy with which Dawn can aim its sensors is essentially unaffected by which control mode is used, so hydrazine conservation is the dominant consideration in when to use the wheels.) Apart from a successful test of hybrid control two years ago and three subsequent periods of a few hours each for biannual operation to redistribute internal lubricants, the two operable wheels have been off since August 2012, when Dawn was climbing away from Vesta on its way out of orbit.

Controllers plan to reactivate the wheels on Dec. 14. However, in the unlikely case that the TCM is deemed unnecessary, they will power the wheels on on Dec. 11. The reaction wheels will remain in use for as long as both function correctly. If either one fails, which could happen immediately or might not happen before the hydrazine is depleted next year, it and the other will be powered off, and the mission will continue, relying exclusively on hydrazine control.

PIA20124: Dawn HAMO Image 62
Dawn recorded this view in its third mapping orbit at an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) in mapping cycle #5. The region shown is located between between Fluusa and Toharu craters. The largest crater here is 16 miles (26 kilometers) across. The well defined features indicate the crater is relatively young, so subsequent small impacts have not degraded it significantly. As elsewhere on Ceres, some strikingly bright material is evident, particularly in the walls. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn will measure the energies and numbers of neutrons and gamma rays emanating from Ceres as soon as it arrives in its new orbit. With a month or so of these measurements, scientists will be able to determine the abundances of some of the elements that compose the material near the surface. Engineers and scientists also will collect new data on the gravity field at this low altitude right away, so they eventually can build up a profile of the dwarf planet's interior structure. The other instruments (including the camera) have narrower fields of view and are more sensitive to small discrepancies in where they are aimed. It will take a few more days to incorporate the actual measured orbital parameters into the corresponding plans that controllers will radio to the spacecraft. Those observations are scheduled to begin on Dec. 18. But always squeezing as much as possible out of the mission, the flight team might actually begin some photography and infrared spectroscopy as early as Dec. 16.

Now closing in on its final orbit, the veteran space traveler soon will commence the last phase of its long and fruitful adventure, when it will provide the best views yet of Ceres. Known for more than two centuries as little more than a speck of light in the vast and beautiful expanse of the stars, the spacecraft has already transformed it into a richly detailed and fascinating world. Now Dawn is on the verge of revealing even more of Ceres' secrets, answering more questions and, as is the marvelous nature of science and exploration, raising new ones.

Dawn is 295 miles (470 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.33 AU (309 million miles, or 498 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,270 times as far as the moon and 3.37 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 55 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
5:00 p.m. PST, November 30, 2015

TAGS: DAWN, MISSION, SPACECRAFT, CERES, VESTA, DWARF PLANET

  • Marc Rayman
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Animated gif using images from NASA's Dawn mission showing the topography of the dwarf planet Ceres

Dear Exuldawnt Readers,

Dawn has completed another outstandingly successful campaign to acquire a wealth of pictures and other data in its exploration of dwarf planet Ceres. Exultant residents of distant Earth now have the clearest and most complete view ever of this former planet.

The stalwart probe spent more than two months orbiting 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) above the alien world. We described the plans for this third major phase of Dawn's investigation (also known as the high altitude mapping orbit, or HAMO) in August and provided a brief progress report in September. Now we can look back on its extremely productive work.

Ceres wuth planetary names
This map of Ceres shows the feature names approved by the International Astronomical Union. We described the naming convention in December, and the most up-to-date list of names is here. The small crater Kait (named for the ancient Hattic grain goddess) is used to define the location of the prime meridian. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Each revolution, flying over the north pole to the south pole and back to the north, took Dawn 19 hours. Mission planners carefully chose the orbital parameters to coordinate the spacecraft's travels with the nine-hour rotation period of Ceres (one Cerean day) and with the field of view of the camera so that in 12 orbits over the lit hemisphere (one mapping "cycle"), Dawn could photograph all of the terrain.

In each of six mapping cycles, the robot held its camera and its infrared and visible mapping spectrometers at a different angle. For the first cycle (Aug. 17-26), Dawn looked straight down. For the second, it looked a little bit behind and to the left as it completed another dozen orbits. For the third map, it pointed the sensors a little behind and to the right. In its fourth cycle, it aimed ahead and to the left. When it made its fifth map, it peered immediately ahead, and for the sixth and final cycle (Oct. 12-21) it viewed terrain farther back than in the third cycle but not as far to the right.

The result of this extensive mapping is a very rich collection of photos of the fascinating scenery on a distant world. Think for a moment of the pictures not so much from the standpoint of the spacecraft but rather from a location on the ground. With the different perspectives in each mapping cycle, that location has been photographed from several different angles, providing stereo views. Scientists will use these pictures to make the landscape pop into its full three dimensionality.

Dawn's reward for these two months of hard work is much more than revealing Ceres' detailed topography, valuable though that is. During the first and fifth mapping cycles, it used the seven color filters in the camera, providing extensive coverage in visible and infrared wavelengths.

Hints at Ceres’ Composition from Color
This false-color map of Ceres was constructed using images taken in the first mapping cycle at an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). It combines pictures taken in filters that admit light in what the human eye perceives as violet (440 nanometers), near the limit of visible red (750 nanometers), and invisible infrared (920 nanometers). Because humans are so good at processing visual information, depictions such as this are a helpful way to highlight and illustrate variations in the composition or other properties of the material on Ceres' surface. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

In addition to taking more than 6,700 pictures, the spacecraft operated its visible and infrared mapping spectrometers to acquire in excess of 12.5 million spectra. Each spectrum contains much finer measurements of the colors and a wider range of wavelengths than the camera. In exchange, the camera has sharper vision and so can discern smaller geological features. As the nerdier among us would say, the spectrometers achieve better spectral resolution and the camera achieves better spatial resolution. Fortunately, it is not a competition, because Dawn has both, and the instruments yield complementary measurements.

Even as scientists are methodically analyzing the vast trove of data, turning it into knowledge, you can go to the Ceres image gallery to see some of Dawn's pictures, exhibiting a great variety of terrain, smooth or rugged, strangely bright or dark, unique in the solar system or reminiscent of elsewhere spacecraft have traveled, and always intriguing.

Occator Mosaic
Ten photos from Dawn's first mapping cycle were combined to make this view centered on Occator crater. Because of the range of brightness, pictures with two different exposures were required to record the details of the bright regions and the rest of the crater itself, as explained last month. Eight additional pictures show the area around the crater. Occator is almost 60 miles (more than 90 kilometers) in diameter. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Among the questions scientists are grappling with is what the nature of the bright regions is. There are many places on Ceres that display strikingly reflective material but nowhere as prominently as in Occator crater. Even as Dawn approached Ceres, the mysterious reflections shone out far into space, mesmerizing and irresistible, as if to guide or even seduce a passing ship into going closer. Our intrepid interplanetary adventurer, compelled not by this cosmic invitation but rather by humankind's still more powerful yearning for new knowledge and new insights, did indeed venture in. Now it has acquired excellent pictures and beautiful spectra that will help determine the composition and perhaps even how the bright areas came to be. Thanks to the extraordinary power of the scientific method, we can look forward to explanations. (And while you wait, you can register your vote here for what the answer will be.)

Scientists also puzzle over the number and distribution of craters. We mentioned in December the possibility that ice being mixed in as a major component on or near the surface would cause the material to flow, albeit very slowly on the scale of a human lifetime. But over longer times, the glacially slow movement might prove significant. Most of Ceres' craters are excavated by impacts from some of the many bodies that roam that part of the solar system. Ceres lives in a rough neighborhood, and being the most massive body between Mars and Jupiter does not give it immunity to assaults. Indeed, its gravity makes it even more susceptible, attracting passersby. But once a crater is formed, the scar might be expected to heal as the misshapen ground gradually recovers. In some ways this is similar to when you remove pressure from your skin. What may be a deep impression relaxes, and after a while, the original mark (or, one may hope, Marc) is gone. But Ceres has more craters than some scientists had anticipated, especially at low latitudes where sunlight provides a faint warming. Apparently the expectation of the gradual disappearance of craters was not quite right. Is there less evidence of flowing ground material because the temperature is lower than predicted (causing the flow to be even slower), because the composition is not quite what was assumed, or because of other reasons? Moreover, craters are not distributed as would be expected for random pummeling; some regions display significantly more craters than others. Investigating this heterogeneity may give further insight into the geological processes that have taken place and are occurring now on this dwarf planet.

Occator Topography
This color-coded topographic map of Occator crater is based on Dawn's observations in its second mapping orbit at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). Of course there is no sea level on Ceres, but the deep blue here is 5,150 feet (1,570 meters) below a reference level, and brown is 14,025 feet (4,275 meters) above it. (Brown is used in place of white for the elevation, so white can show the bright regions.) Imagine the exotic scenery here, with strangely bright areas and towering crater walls. The stereo views acquired in the third mapping orbit will reveal finer detail in the topography. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn's bounty from this third major science campaign includes even more than stereo and color pictures plus visible and infrared spectra. Precise tracking of the spacecraft as it moves in response to Ceres' gravitational pull allows scientists to calculate the arrangement of mass in the behemoth. Performing such measurements will be among the top three priorities for the lowest altitude orbit, when Dawn experiences the strongest buffeting from the gravitational currents, but already the structure of the gravitational field is starting to be evident. We will see next month how this led to a small change in the choice of the altitude for this next orbit, which will be less than 235 miles (380 kilometers).

The other top two priorities for the final mission phase are the measurement of neutron spectra and the measurement of gamma ray spectra, both of which will help in establishing what species of atoms are present on and near the surface. The weak radiation from Ceres is difficult to measure from the altitudes at which Dawn has been operating so far. The gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) has been in use since March 12 (shortly after Dawn arrived in orbit), but that has been to prepare for the low orbit. Nevertheless, the sophisticated instrument did detect the dwarf planet's faint nuclear emissions even in this third orbital phase. The signal was not strong enough to allow any conclusions about the elemental composition, but it is interesting to begin seeing the radiation which will help uncover more of Ceres' secrets when Dawn is closer.

To scientists' great delight, one of GRaND's sensors even found an entirely unexpected signature of Ceres in Dawn's second mapping orbit, where the spacecraft revolved every 3.1 days at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). In a nice example of scientific serendipity, it detected high energy electrons in the same region of space above Ceres on three consecutive orbits. Electrons and other subatomic particles stream outward from the sun in what is called the solar wind, and researchers understand how planets with magnetic fields can accelerate them to higher energy. Earth is an example of a planet with a magnetic field, but Ceres is thought not to be. So scientists now have the unanticipated joy not only of establishing the physical mechanism responsible for this discovery but also determining what it reveals about this dwarf planet.

Dawn HAMO Image 29
Dawn had this view near 0 degrees longitude in the northern hemisphere on Sept. 9 in its third mapping cycle at an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). Oxo crater on the right, which shows bright material inside and out as well as a peculiar shape, is slightly over five miles (nearly nine kilometers) in diameter. The crater is named for the god of agriculture for the Yoruba people of Brazil. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Several times during each of the six mapping cycles, Dawn expended a few grams of its precious hydrazine propellant to rotate so it could aim its main antenna at Earth. While the craft soared high above ground cloaked in the deep black of night, it transmitted some of its findings to NASA's Deep Space Network. But Dawn conducted so many observations that during half an orbit, or about 9.5 hours, it could not radio enough data to empty its memory. By the end of each mapping cycle, the probe had accumulated so much data that it fixed its antenna on Earth for about two days, or 2.5 revolutions, to send its detailed reports on Ceres to eager Earthlings.

Following the conclusion of the final mapping cycle, after transmitting the last of the information it had stored in its computer, the robotic explorer did not waste any time gloating over its accomplishments. There was still a great deal more work to do. On Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m., it fired up ion engine #2 (the same one it used to descend from the second mapping orbit to the third) to begin more than seven weeks of spiraling down to its fourth orbit. (You can follow its progress here and on Twitter @NASA_Dawn.) Dawn has accomplished more than 5.4 years of ion thrusting since it left Earth, and the complex descent to less than 235 miles (380 kilometers) is the final thrusting campaign of the entire extraterrestrial expedition. (The ion propulsion system will be used occasionally to make small adjustments to the final orbit.)

The blue lights in Dawn mission control that indicate the spacecraft is thrusting had been off since Aug. 13. Now they are on again, serving as a constant (and cool) reminder that the ambitious mission is continuing to power its way to new (and cool) destinations.

Dawn is 740 miles (1,190 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.91 AU (271 million miles, or 436 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,165 times as far as the moon and 2.93 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 48 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
3:00 p.m. PDT October 30, 2015

P.S. While the spacecraft is hard at work continuing its descent tomorrow, your correspondent will be hard at work dispensing treats to budding (but cute) extortionists at his front door. But zany and playful as ever, he will expand his delightful costume from last year by adding eight parts dark energy. Trick or treat!

TAGS: CERES, DAWN, MISSION, SPACECRAFT, VESTA, DWARF PLANET

  • Marc Rayman
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Artist concept of NASA's Dawn spacecraft between its two science targets, Ceres (left) and Vesta (right). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dear Dawnniversaries,

Eight years ago today, Dawn was gravitationally bound to a planet. It was conceived and built there by creatures curious and bold, with an insatiable yearning to reach out and know the cosmos. Under their guidance, it left Earth behind as its Delta rocket dispatched it on an ambitious mission to explore two of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system. As Earth continued circling the sun once a year, now having completed eight revolutions since its celestial ambassador departed, Dawn has accomplished a remarkable interplanetary journey. The adventurer spent most of its anniversaries powering its way through the solar system, using its advanced and uniquely capable ion propulsion system to reshape its orbit around the sun. On its way to the main asteroid belt, it sailed past Mars, taking some of the that red planet's orbital energy to boost its own solar orbit. On its fourth anniversary, the probe was locked in orbit around the giant protoplanet Vesta, the second most massive object between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn's pictures and other data showed it to be a complex, fascinating world, more closely related to the terrestrial planets (including one on which it began its mission and another from which it stole some energy) than to the much smaller asteroids.

Dawn launch, JSC, Sept. 27. 2007
Dawn launched at dawn (7:34 a.m. EDT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Sep. 27, 2007. Its mission is to learn about the dawn of the solar system by studying Vesta and Ceres. The intricate sequence of activities between the time this photo was taken and Dawn's separation from the rocket to fly on its own is described here. Image credit: KSC/NASA

Today, on the eighth anniversary of venturing into the cosmos, Dawn is once again doing what it does best. In the permanent gravitational embrace of dwarf planet Ceres, orbiting at an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers), Dawn is using its suite of sophisticated sensors to scrutinize this mysterious, alien orb. Ceres was the first dwarf planet ever sighted (and was called a planet for more than a generation after its discovery), but it had to wait more than two centuries before Earth accepted its celestial invitation. The only spacecraft ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, this interplanetary spaceship arrived at Ceres in March to take up residence.

Although this is the final anniversary during its scheduled primary mission, Dawn will remain in orbit around its new home far, far into the future. Later this year it will spiral down to its fourth and final orbital altitude at about 230 miles (375 kilometers). Once there, it will record spectra of neutrons, gamma rays, and visible and infrared light, measure the distribution of mass inside Ceres, and take pictures. Then when it exhausts its supply of hydrazine next year, as it surely will, the mission will end. We have discussed before that despite the failure of two reaction wheels, devices previously considered indispensable for the expedition, the hardy ship has excellent prospects now for fulfilling and even exceeding its many goals in exploring Ceres.

Last month we described the plans for Dawn's penultimate mapping phase at the dwarf planet, and it is going very well. The probe is already more than halfway through this third orbital phase at Ceres, which is divided into six mapping cycles. Each 11-day cycle requires a dozen flights over the illuminated hemisphere to allow the camera to map the entire surface. Each map is made by looking at a different angle. Taken together then, they provide stereo views, so scientists gain perspectives that allow them to construct topographical maps. The camera's internal computer detected an unexpected condition in the third cycle of this phase, and that caused the loss of some of the pictures. But experienced mission planners had designed all of the major mapping phases (summarized here) with more observations than are needed to meet their objectives, so the deletion of those images was not significant. At this moment, the spacecraft is nearing the end of its fourth mapping cycle, making its tenth flight over the side of Ceres lit by the sun.

You can follow Dawn's progress by using your own interplanetary spaceship to snoop into its activities in orbit around the distant world, by tapping into the radio signals beamed back and forth across the solar system between Dawn and the giant antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network, or by checking the frequent mission status reports.

You also can see the marvelous sights by visiting the Ceres image gallery. Among the most captivating is Occator crater (see the picture below). As the spacecraft has produced ever finer pictures this year, starting with its distant observations in January, the light reflecting from the interior of this crater has dazzled us. The latest pictures show 260 times as much detail. Dawn has transformed what was so recently just a bright spot into a complex and beautiful gleaming landscape. Last month we asked what these mesmerizing features would reveal when photographed from this the present altitude, and now we know.

Dawn Takes a Closer Look at Occator
Dawn's view of Occator crater from an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). This is a composite of two photos taken on Aug. 22. Because of the large range in brightness, controllers modified Dawn's observation plan to take pictures with different exposures: a normal exposure for most of the scene, and a short exposure to capture the details of the brightest areas. Occator is almost 60 miles (more than 90 kilometers) in diameter. Following the theme established last year for naming features on Ceres, the International Astronomical Union named this crater for a Roman deity of harrowing. Whatever the geochemical reason for the stunning bright regions turns out to be, it's unlikely to be related to that agricultural technique of breaking up soil and covering seeds. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Scientists are continuing to analyze Dawn's pictures and other data not only from Occator but all of Ceres to learn more about the nature of this exotic relict from the dawn of the solar system. Many deep questions are unanswered and remain mystifying, but of one point there can be no doubt: the scenery is beautiful. Even now, the photos speak for themselves, displaying wondrous sights on a world shaped both by its own complex internal geological processes as well as by external forces from more than 4.5 billion years in the rough and tumble main asteroid belt.

Because the pictures speak for themselves, your correspondent will speak for the mission. So now, as every Sep. 27, let's take a broader look at Dawn's deep-space trek. For those who would like to track the probe’s progress in the same terms used on past anniversaries, we present here the eighth annual summary, reusing text from previous years with updates where appropriate. Readers who wish to reflect upon Dawn's ambitious journey may find it helpful to compare this material with the logs from its first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh anniversaries.

In its eight years of interplanetary travels, the spacecraft has thrust for a total of 1,976 days, or 68 percent of the time (and about 0.000000039 percent of the time since the Big Bang). While for most spacecraft, firing a thruster to change course is a special event, it is Dawn’s wont. All this thrusting has cost the craft only 873 pounds (396 kilograms) of its supply of xenon propellant, which was 937 pounds (425 kilograms) on Sep. 27, 2007. The spacecraft has used 66 of the 71 gallons (252 of the 270 liters) of xenon it carried when it rode its rocket from Earth into space.

The thrusting since then has achieved the equivalent of accelerating the probe by 24,400 mph (39,200 kilometers per hour). As previous logs have described (see here for one of the more extensive discussions), because of the principles of motion for orbital flight, whether around the sun or any other gravitating body, Dawn is not actually traveling this much faster than when it launched. But the effective change in speed remains a useful measure of the effect of any spacecraft’s propulsive work. Having accomplished 98 percent of the thrust time planned for its entire mission, Dawn has far exceeded the velocity change achieved by any other spacecraft under its own power. (For a comparison with probes that enter orbit around Mars, refer to this earlier log.) The principal ion thrusting that remains is to maneuver from the present orbit to the final one from late October to mid-December.

trajectory
Dawn's interplanetary trajectory (in blue). The dates in white show Dawn's location every Sep. 27, starting on Earth in 2007. Note that Earth returns to the same location, taking one year to complete each revolution around the sun. When Dawn is farther from the sun, it orbits more slowly, so the distance from one Sep. 27 to the next is shorter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since launch, our readers who have remained on or near Earth have completed eight revolutions around the sun, covering 50.3 AU (4.7 billion miles, or 7.5 billion kilometers). Orbiting farther from the sun, and thus moving at a more leisurely pace, Dawn has traveled 35.0 AU (3.3 billion miles, or 5.2 billion kilometers). As it climbed away from the sun, up the solar system hill, to match its orbit to that of Vesta, it continued to slow down to Vesta’s speed. It had to go even slower to perform its graceful rendezvous with Ceres. In the eight years since Dawn began its voyage, Vesta has traveled only 32.7 AU (3.0 billion miles, or 4.9 billion kilometers), and the even more sedate Ceres has gone 26.8 AU (2.5 billion miles, or 4.0 billion kilometers). (To develop a feeling for the relative speeds, you might reread this paragraph while paying attention to only one set of units, whether you choose AU, miles, or kilometers. Ignore the other two scales so you can focus on the differences in distance among Earth, Dawn, Vesta and Ceres over the eight years. You will see that as the strength of the sun's gravitational grip weakens at greater distance, the corresponding orbital speed decreases.)

The Lonely Mountain
Dawn had this view on Aug. 18 from an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). The unnamed mountain to the right of center reaches a height of 4 miles (6 kilometers) or 20,000 feet (comparable to the elevation of North America's tallest peak, Mount Denali). This curious cone, showing prominent bright streaks, has a sharply defined base with virtually no accumulated debris. We have seen this huge feature from other perspectives in previous months. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Another way to investigate the progress of the mission is to chart how Dawn’s orbit around the sun has changed. This discussion will culminate with a few more numbers than we usually include, and readers who prefer not to indulge may skip this material, leaving that much more for the grateful Numerivores. (If you prefer not to skip it, click here.) In order to make the table below comprehensible (and to fulfill our commitment of environmental responsibility), we recycle some more text here on the nature of orbits.

Orbits are ellipses (like flattened circles, or ovals in which the ends are of equal size). So as members of the solar system family (including Earth, Vesta, Ceres and Dawn) follow their paths around the sun, they sometimes move closer and sometimes move farther from it.

In addition to orbits being characterized by shape, or equivalently by the amount of flattening (that is, the deviation from being a perfect circle), and by size, they may be described in part by how they are oriented in space. Using the bias of terrestrial astronomers, the plane of Earth’s orbit around the sun (known as the ecliptic) is a good reference. Other planets and interplanetary spacecraft may travel in orbits that are tipped at some angle to that. The angle between the ecliptic and the plane of another body’s orbit around the sun is the inclination of that orbit. Vesta and Ceres do not orbit the sun in the same plane that Earth does, and Dawn must match its orbit to that of its targets. (The major planets orbit closer to the ecliptic, and part of the arduousness of Dawn's journey has been changing the inclination of its orbit, an energetically expensive task.)

Now we can see how Dawn has done by considering the size and shape (together expressed by the minimum and maximum distances from the sun) and inclination of its orbit on each of its anniversaries. (Experts readily recognize that there is more to describing an orbit than these parameters. Our policy remains that we link to the experts’ websites when their readership extends to one more elliptical galaxy than ours does.)

The table below shows what the orbit would have been if the spacecraft had terminated ion thrusting on its anniversaries; the orbits of its destinations, Vesta and Ceres, are included for comparison. Of course, when Dawn was on the launch pad on Sep. 27, 2007, its orbit around the sun was exactly Earth’s orbit. After launch, it was in its own solar orbit.

Minimum distance
from the Sun (AU)
Maximum distance
from the Sun (AU)
Inclination
Earth's orbit 0.98 1.02 0.0°
Dawn's orbit on Sep. 27, 2007 (before launch) 0.98 1.02 0.0°
Dawn's orbit on Sep. 27, 2007 (after launch) 1.00 1.62 0.6°
Dawn's orbit on Sep. 27, 2008 1.21 1.68 1.4°
Dawn's orbit on Sep. 27, 2009 1.42 1.87 6.2°
Dawn's orbit on Sep. 27, 2010 1.89 2.13 6.8°
Dawn's orbit on Sep. 27, 2011 2.15 2.57 7.1°
Vesta's orbit 2.15 2.57 7.1°
Dawn's orbit on Sep. 27, 2012 2.17 2.57 7.3°
Dawn's orbit on Sep. 27, 2013 2.44 2.98 8.7°
Dawn's orbit on Sep. 27, 2014 2.46 3.02 9.8°
Dawn's orbit on Sep. 27, 2015 2.56 2.98 10.6°
Ceres' orbit 2.56 2.98 10.6°

For readers who are not overwhelmed by the number of numbers, investing the effort to study the table may help to demonstrate how Dawn has patiently transformed its orbit during the course of its mission. Note that four years ago, the spacecraft’s path around the sun was exactly the same as Vesta’s. Achieving that perfect match was, of course, the objective of the long flight that started in the same solar orbit as Earth, and that is how Dawn managed to slip into orbit around Vesta. While simply flying by it would have been far easier, matching orbits with Vesta required the exceptional capability of the ion propulsion system. Without that technology, NASA’s Discovery Program would not have been able to afford a mission to explore the massive protoplanet in such detail. But now, Dawn has gone even beyond that. Having discovered so many of Vesta's secrets, the stalwart adventurer left it behind in 2012. No other spacecraft has ever escaped from orbit around one distant solar system object to travel to and orbit still another extraterrestrial destination. Dawn devoted another 2.5 years to reshaping and tilting its orbit even more so that now it is identical to Ceres'. Once again, that was essential to the intricate celestial choreography in March, when the behemoth reached out with its gravity and tenderly took hold of the spacecraft. They have been performing an elegant pas de deux ever since.

Dawn takes great advantage of being able to orbit its two targets by performing extensive measurements that would not be feasible with a fleeting visit at high speed. As its detailed inspection of a strange and distant world continues, we can look forward to more intriguing perspectives and exciting insights into our solar system. On its eighth anniversary of setting sail on the cosmic seas for an extraordinary voyage, the faithful ship is steadily accumulating great treasures.

ASA's Dawn spacecraft took this image that shows a mountain ridge, near lower left, that lies in the center of Urvara crater on Ceres. Urvara is an Indian and Iranian deity of plants and fields. The crater's diameter is 101 miles (163 kilometers).
Dawn observed this region inside Urvara crater on Aug. 19. The crater is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) in diameter and is named for an Indian and Iranian deity of plants and fields. Although many craters have a mountain in the center, as we explained when we saw the entire crater from three times farther away in the second mapping orbit, Urvara has an interesting ridge, visible at lower left. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn is 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.45 AU (228 million miles, or 367 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,025 times as far as the moon and 2.45 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 41 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:34 a.m. PDT September 27, 2015

TAGS: DAWN, ANNIVERSARY, CERES, VESTA, MISSION

  • Marc Rayman
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Video animation of various views of CeresYoutube video

Dear Unhesidawntingly Enthusiastic Readers,

An ambitious explorer from Earth is gaining the best views ever of dwarf planet Ceres. More than two centuries after its discovery, this erstwhile planet is now being mapped in great detail by Dawn.

The spacecraft is engaged in some of the most intensive observations of its entire mission at Ceres, using its camera and other sensors to scrutinize the alien world with unprecedented clarity and completeness. At an average altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) and traveling at 400 mph (645 kilometers per hour), Dawn completes an orbit every 19 hours. The pioneer will be here for more than two months before descending to its final orbit.

The complex spiral maneuver down from the second mapping orbit at 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) went so well that Dawn arrived in this third mapping orbit on Aug. 13, which was slightly ahead of schedule. (Frequent progress of its descent, and reports on the ongoing work in the new orbit, are available here and on Twitter @NASA_Dawn.) It began this third mapping phase on schedule at 9:53:40 p.m. PDT on Aug. 17.

Map of Ceres with named craters
This map of Ceres shows the feature names approved by the International Astronomical Union as of August 14, 2015. We described the naming convention in December, and the most up-to-date list of names is here. (Click on the image for an enlarged view or go here for a similar version with other details.) Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

We had a detailed preview of the plans last year when Dawn was more than six thousand times farther from Ceres than it is today. (For reasons almost as old as Ceres itself, this phase is also known as the high altitude mapping orbit, or HAMO, although we have seen that it is the second lowest of the four mapping orbits.) Now let’s review what will happen, including a change mission planners have made since then.

The precious pictures and other data have just begun to arrive on Earth, and it is too soon to say anything about the latest findings, but stand by for stunning new discoveries. Actually, you could get pictures about as good as Dawn’s are now with a telescope 217 times the diameter of Hubble Space Telescope. An alternative is to build your own interplanetary spaceship, travel through the depths of space to the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system, and look out the window. Or go to the Ceres image gallery.

Dawn has already gained fabulous perspectives on this mysterious world from its first and second mapping orbits. Now at one third the altitude of the mapping campaign that completed in June, its view is three times as sharp. (Exploring the cosmos is so cool!) That also means each picture takes in a correspondingly smaller area, so more pictures are needed now to cover the entire vast and varied landscape. At this height, Dawn’s camera sees a square about 88 miles (140 kilometers) on a side, less than one percent of the more than one million square miles (nearly 2.8 million square kilometers). The orbital parameters were chosen carefully so that as Ceres rotates on its axis every nine hours (one Cerean day), Dawn will be able to photograph nearly all of the surface in a dozen orbital loops.

brightest spots on dwarf planet Ceres
The famous bright spots (or famously bright spots) in Occator crater, as viewed in the second mapping orbit. What will these mesmerizing features reveal with pictures three times sharper? We will know soon! And pictures from Dawn’s closest mapping orbit will display almost 12 times as much detail as seen here. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

When Dawn explored the giant protoplanet Vesta from comparable orbits (HAMO1 in 2011 and HAMO2 in 2012), it pointed its scientific instruments at the illuminated ground whenever it was on the dayside. Every time its orbit took it over the nightside, it turned to point its main antenna at Earth to radio its findings to NASA’s Deep Space Network. As we explained last year, however, that is not the plan at Ceres, because of the failure of two of the ship’s reaction wheels. (By electrically changing the speed at which these gyroscope-like devices rotate, Dawn can turn or stabilize itself in the zero-gravity conditions of spaceflight.)

We discussed in January that the flight team has excogitated innovative methods to accomplish and even exceed the original mission objectives regardless of the condition of the wheels, even the two operable ones (which will not be used until the final mapping orbit). Dawn no longer relies on reaction wheels, although when it left Earth in 2007, they were deemed indispensable. The spacecraft’s resilience (which is a direct result of the team’s resourcefulness) is remarkable!

One of the many ingredients in the recipe for turning the potentially devastating loss of the wheels into a solid plan for success has been to rotate the spacecraft less frequently. Therefore, sometimes Dawn will wait patiently for half an orbit (almost 9.5 hours) as it flies above ground cloaked in the deep darkness of night, its instruments pointed at terrain they cannot detect. Other times, it will keep its antenna fixed on Earth without even glancing at the sunlit scenery below, because it can capture the views on other revolutions. This strategy conserves hydrazine, the conventional rocket propellant used by the small jets of the reaction control system in the absence of the wheels. It takes more time, but because Dawn is in orbit, time is not such a limited resource. It will take 12 passages over the illuminated hemisphere, each lasting nearly 9.5 hours, to bring the entirety of the landscape within view of its camera, but we will need a total of 14 full revolutions, or 11 days (29 Cerean days, for those of you using that calendar), to acquire and transmit all the data. The Dawn team calls this 11-day period “11 days,” or sometimes a “cycle.”

In quite a change from the days that there simply didn’t seem to be enough hydrazine onboard to accomplish all of the mission’s ambitious objectives, engineers and the spacecraft itself have collaborated to be so efficient with the precious molecules that they now have some to spare. Therefore, mission planners have recently decided to spend a few more in this mapping orbit. They have added extra turns to allow the robot to communicate with Earth during more of the transits over the nightside than they had previously budgeted. This means Dawn can send the contents of its computer memory to Earth more often and therefore have space to collect and store even more data than originally planned. An 11-day mapping cycle is going to be marvelously productive.

Dawn Survey Orbit Image 46
The conical mountain visible in the animation above is on the left of this photograph from the second mapping orbit. The mountain’s distinctive bright side is facing right. We presented two other perspectives of it in June. Scientists have recently refined their calculation of its height, now estimating that it towers an impressive four miles (six kilometers) above the surrounding terrain. In the third mapping orbit, Dawn will provide clearer views and a more accurate measurement of its elevation. The image below shows the mountain from still another perspective.
Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

But Dawn has goals still more ambitious than taking pictures and recording infrared and visible spectra of the lands passing underneath it. It will conduct six complete mapping cycles, each one looking at a slightly different angle. This will effectively yield stereo views, which when combined will make those flat images pop into full three dimensionality.

In its first mapping cycle, which is taking place now, the explorer aims its instruments straight down. For the second, it will keep the camera pointed a little bit back and to the left, making another full map but with a different perspective. For the third, it will look a little back and to the right. The fourth map will be viewing the scenery ahead and to the left. The fifth map will be of the terrain immediately ahead, and the sixth will be farther back than the third but not as far to the right.

In addition to the stereo pictures and the many spectra (which reveal the nature of the minerals as well as the surface temperature), Dawn will use the color filters in its camera to record the sights in visible and infrared wavelengths.

As always, mission planners schedule more observations than are needed, recognizing that glitches can occur on a complex and challenging expedition in the forbidding depths of space. So even if some data are not collected, the goals can still be accomplished.

The probe also will continue to acquire spectra both of neutrons and of gamma rays. It is unlikely to detect more than a whisper of neutrons from Ceres at this height, but the radiation coming from elsewhere in space now will serve as a useful calibration when it measures stronger nuclear emanations from one quarter the altitude starting in December, allowing scientists to inventory Ceres’ atomic constituents.

Precise measurements of Dawn’s radio signal will reveal more details of the dwarf planet’s gravitational field and hence the distribution of mass within. When the spacecraft is not aiming its main antenna at Earth, it will broadcast through one of its three auxiliary antennas, and the Deep Space Network will be listening (almost) continuously throughout the 84 orbits.

a conical mountain on Ceres
The same conical mountain pictured above can be seen on the left of this photograph. Some of the bright material outside Haulani crater is visible near the limb on the right edge. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

As at Vesta, Dawn’s polar orbits are oriented so that the craft always keeps the sun in view, never entering Ceres’ shadow, even when it is nighttime on the ground below. But its course will take the robot out of sight from Earth occasionally, and the behemoth of rock and ice will block the radio signal. Of course, Dawn is quite accustomed to operating in radio silence. It follows timed instructions (called sequences) that cover a full mapping cycle, so it does not require constant contact. And in budgeting how much data Dawn can collect and transmit, mission planners have accounted for the amount of time Ceres will eclipse its view of Earth.

Thanks to the uniquely efficient and exceptionally gentle thrust of the ion engines, as well as the flexibility inherent in being in orbit, Dawn operations generally can be more leisurely than those with conventional chemical propulsion or missions that only fly past their targets rather than stay for as long as needed. In that spirit, controllers had allowed the time in the spacecraft’s main computer to drift off, as there was no need to keep it particularly accurate. But recently the clock was off by so much that they decided to correct it, so before the mapping began, they adjusted it by a whopping 0.983 seconds, eliminating a large (but still tolerable) offset.

Many residents of Earth’s northern hemisphere are completing their leisurely summer vacations. As we saw in February, Dawn has measured the orientation of Ceres’ spin axis and found that it is tipped about four degrees (compared with Earth’s axial tilt of 23 degrees). The sun then never moves very far from the dwarf planet’s equator, so seasonal variations are mild. Nevertheless, northern hemisphere summer (southern hemisphere winter) began on Ceres on July 24. Because Ceres takes longer to revolve around the sun than Earth, seasons last much longer. The next equinox won’t occur until Nov. 13, 2016, so there is still plenty of time to plan a summer vacation.

Meanwhile, Dawn is working tirelessly to reveal the nature of this complex, intriguing world. Now seeing the exotic sights with a shaper focus than ever, the probe’s meticulous mapping will provide a wealth of new data that scientists will turn into knowledge. And everyone who has ever seen the night sky beckon, everyone who has heard the universe’s irresistible invitation, and everyone who has felt the overpowering drive for a bold journey far from Earth shares in the experience of this remarkable interplanetary adventure.

Dawn is 905 miles (1,456 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.06 AU (191 million miles, or 308 million kilometers) from Earth, or 775 times as far as the moon and 2.03 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 34 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
5:00 p.m. PDT August 21, 2015

TAGS: CERES, DAWN, ION PROPULSION, DWARF PLANET, MISSION, SPACECRAFT

  • Marc Rayman
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This view of Ceres shows some bright material that is not confined to “spots.”

Dear Descendawnts,

Flying on a blue-green ray of xenon ions, Dawn is gracefully descending toward dwarf planet Ceres. Even as Dawn prepares for a sumptuous new feast in its next mapping orbit, scientists are continuing to delight in the delicacies Ceres has already served. With a wonderfully rich bounty of pictures and other observations already secured, the explorer is now on its way to an even better vantage point.

Dawn Survey Orbit Image 31 This image, taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, shows dwarf planet Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). The image, with a resolution of 1,400 feet (410 meters) per pixel, was taken on June 25, 2015.
Dawn was in its second mapping orbit at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) when it took this picture of Ceres. This area shows relatively few craters, suggesting it is younger than some other areas on Ceres. Some bright spots are visible, although they are not as prominent as the most famous bright spots. Scientists do not yet have a clear explanation for them, but you can register your vote here. Click on the picture (or follow the link to the full image) for a better view of some interesting narrow, straight features in the lower left. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Full image and caption

Dawn takes great advantage of its unique ion propulsion system to maneuver extensively in orbit, optimizing its views of the alien world that beckoned for more than two centuries before a terrestrial ambassador arrived in March. Dawn has been in powered flight for most of its time in space, gently thrusting with its ion engine for 69 percent of the time since it embarked on its bold interplanetary adventure in 2007. Such a flight profile is entirely different from the great majority of space missions. Most spacecraft coast most of the time (just as planets do), making only brief maneuvers that may add up to just a few hours or even less over the course of a mission of many years. But most spacecraft could not accomplish Dawn’s ambitious mission. Indeed, no other spacecraft could. The only ship ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, Dawn accomplishes what would be impossible with conventional technology. With the extraordinary capability of ion propulsion, it is truly an interplanetary spaceship.

In addition to using its ion engine to travel to Vesta, enter into orbit around the protoplanet in 2011, break out of orbit in 2012, travel to Ceres and enter into orbit there this year, Dawn relies on the same system to fly to different orbits around these worlds it unveils, executing complex and graceful spirals around its gravitational master. After conducting wonderfully successful observation campaigns in its preantepenultimate Ceres orbit 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) high in April and May and its antepenultimate orbit at 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) in June, Dawn commenced its spiral descent to the penultimate orbit at 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) on June 30. (We will discuss this orbital altitude in more detail below.) A glitch interrupted the maneuvering almost as soon as it began, when protective software detected a discrepancy in the probe’s orientation. But thanks to the exceptional flexibility built into the plans, the mission could easily accommodate the change in schedule that followed. It will have no effect on the outcome of the exploration of Ceres. Let’s see what happened.

Survey orbit to HAMO
Dawn’s spiral descent from its second mapping orbit (survey), at 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers), to its third (HAMO), at 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). The two mapping orbits are shown in green. The color of Dawn’s trajectory progresses through the spectrum from blue, when it began ion-thrusting in survey orbit, to red, when it arrives in HAMO. The red dashed sections show where Dawn is coasting for telecommunications. Compare this to the previous spiral. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Control of Dawn’s orientation in the weightless conditions of spaceflight is the responsibility of the attitude control system. (To maintain a mystique about their work, engineers use the term “attitude” instead of “orientation.” This system also happens to have a very positive attitude about its work.) Dawn (and all other objects in three-dimensional space) can turn about three mutually perpendicular axes. The axes may be called pitch, roll and yaw; left/right, front/back and up/down; x, y and z; rock, paper and scissors; chocolate, vanilla and strawberry; Peter, Paul and Mary; etc., but whatever their names, attitude control has several different means to turn or to stabilize each axis. Earlier in its journey, the spacecraft depended on devices known as reaction wheels. As we have discussed in many Dawn Journals, that method is now used only rarely, because two of the four units have failed. The remaining two are being saved for the ultimate orbit at about 230 miles (375 kilometers), which Dawn will attain at the end of this year. Instead of reaction wheels, Dawn has been using its reaction control system, shooting puffs of hydrazine, a conventional rocket propellant, through small jets. (This is entirely different from the ion propulsion system, which expels high velocity xenon ions to change and control Dawn’s path through space. The reaction control system is used only to change and control attitude.)

Whenever Dawn is firing one of its three ion engines, its attitude control system uses still another method. The ship only operates one engine at a time, and attitude control swivels the mechanical gimbal system that holds that engine, thus imparting a small torque to the spacecraft, providing the means to control two axes (pitch and yaw, for example, or chocolate and strawberry). For the third axis (roll or vanilla), it still uses the hydrazine jets of the reaction control system.

On June 30, engine #3 came to life on schedule at 10:32:19 p.m. PDT to begin nearly five weeks of maneuvers. Attitude control deftly switched from using the reaction control system for all three axes to only one, and controlling the other two axes by tipping and tilting the engine with gimbal #3. But the control was not as effective as it should have been. Software monitoring the attitude recognized the condition but wisely avoided reacting too soon, instead giving attitude control time to try to rectify it. Nevertheless, the situation did not improve. Gradually the attitude deviated more and more from what it should have been, despite attitude control’s efforts. Seventeen minutes after thrusting started, the error had grown to 10 degrees. That’s comparable to how far the hour hand of a clock moves in 20 minutes, so Dawn was rotating only a little faster than an hour hand. But even that was more than the sophisticated probe could allow, so at 10:49:27 p.m., the main computer declared one of the “safe modes,” special configurations designed to protect the ship and the mission in uncertain, unexpected or difficult circumstances.

The spacecraft smoothly entered safe mode by turning off the ion engine, reconfiguring other systems, broadcasting a continuous radio signal through one of its antennas and then patiently awaiting further instructions. The radio transmission was received on a distant planet the next day. (It may yet be received on some other planets in the future, but we shall focus here on the response by Earthlings.) One of NASA’s Deep Space Network stations in Australia picked up the signal on July 1, and the mission control team at JPL began investigating immediately.

Engineers assessed the health of the spacecraft and soon started returning it to its normal configuration. By analyzing the myriad diagnostic details reported by the robot over the next few days, they determined that the gimbal mechanism had not operated correctly, so when attitude control tried to change the angle of the ion engine, it did not achieve the desired result.

Because Dawn had already accomplished more than 96 percent of the planned ion-thrusting for the entire mission (nearly 5.5 years so far), the remaining thrusting could easily be accomplished with only one of the ion engines. (Note that the 96 percent here is different from the 69 percent of the total time since launch mentioned above, simply because Dawn has been scheduled not to thrust some of the time, including when it takes data at Vesta and Ceres.) Similarly, of the ion propulsion system’s two computer controllers, two power units and two sets of valves and other plumbing for the xenon, the mission could be completed with only one of each. So although engineers likely could restore gimbal #3’s performance, they chose to switch to another gimbal (and thus another engine) and move on. Dawn’s goal is to explore a mysterious, fascinating world that used to be known as a planet, not to perform complex (and unnecessary) interplanetary gimbal repairs.

One of the benefits of being in orbit (besides it being an incredibly cool place to be) is that Dawn can linger at Ceres, studying it in great detail rather than being constrained by a fast flight and a quick glimpse. By the same principle, there was no urgency in resuming the spiral descent. The second mapping orbit was a perfectly fine place for the spacecraft, and it could circle Ceres there every 3.1 days as long as necessary. (Dawn consumed its hydrazine propellant at a very, very low rate while in that orbit, so the extra time there had a negligible cost, even as measured by the most precious resource.)

The operations team took the time to be cautious and to ensure that they understood the nature of the faulty gimbal well enough to be confident that the ship could continue its smooth sailing. They devised a test to confirm Dawn’s readiness to resume its spiral maneuvers. After swapping to gimbal #2 (and ipso facto engine #2), Dawn thrust from July 14 to 16 and demonstrated the excellent performance the operations team has seen so often from the veteran space traveler. Having passed its test with flying colors (or perhaps even with orbiting colors), Dawn is now well on its way to its third mapping orbit.

Artist’s concept of Dawn thrusting with ion engine #2.
Artist’s concept of Dawn thrusting with ion engine #2. The spacecraft captured the view of Ceres in June, and the intriguing cone described last month is visible on the limb at lower left. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Background image and caption

The gradual descent from the second mapping orbit to the third will require 25 revolutions. The maneuvers will conclude in about two weeks. (As always, you can follow the progress with your correspondent’s frequent and succinct updates here.) As in each mapping orbit, following arrival, a few days will be required in order to prepare for a new round of intensive observations. That third observing campaign will begin on August 17 and last more than two months.

Although this is the second lowest of the mapping orbits, it is also known as the high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO) for mysterious historical reasons. We presented an overview of the HAMO plans last year. Next month, we will describe how the flight team has built on a number of successes since then to make the plans even better.

The view of the landscapes on this distant and exotic dwarf planet from the third mapping orbit will be fantastic. How can we be so sure? The view in the second mapping orbit was fantastic, and it will be three times sharper in the upcoming orbit. Quod erat demonstrandum! To see the sights at Ceres, go there or go here.

Part of the flexibility built into the plans was to measure Ceres’ gravity field as accurately as possible in each mapping orbit and use that knowledge to refine the design for the subsequent orbital phase. Thanks to the extensive gravity measurements in the second mapping orbit in June, navigators were able not only to plot a spiral course but also to calculate the parameters for the next orbit to provide the views needed for the complex mapping activities.

This color-coded map from NASA's Dawn mission shows the highs and lows of topography on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres. It is labeled with names of features approved by the International Astronomical Union.
This map of Ceres depicts the topography ranging from 4.7 miles (7.5 kilometers) low in indigo to 4.7 miles (7.5 kilometers) high in white. (As a technical detail, the topography is shown relative to an ellipsoid of dimensions very close to those in the paragraph below.) The names of features have been approved by the International Astronomical Union following the system described in December. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Full image and caption

We have discussed some of the difficulty in describing the orbital altitude, including variations in the elevation of the terrain, just as a plane flying over mountains and valleys does not maintain a fixed altitude. As you might expect on a world battered by more than four billion years in the main asteroid belt and with its own internal geological forces, Ceres has its ups and downs. (The topographical map above displays them, and you can see a cool animation of Ceres showing off its topography here.) In addition to local topographical features, its overall shape is not perfectly spherical, as we discussed in May. Ongoing refinements based on Dawn’s measurements now indicate the average diameter is 584 miles (940 kilometers), but the equatorial diameter is 599 miles (964 kilometers), whereas the polar diameter is 556 miles (894 kilometers). Moreover, the orbits themselves are not perfect circles, and irregularities in the gravitational field, caused by regions of lower and higher density inside the dwarf planet, tug less or more on the craft, making it move up and down somewhat. (By using that same principle, scientists learn about the interior structure of Ceres and Vesta with very accurate measurements of the subtleties in the spacecraft’s orbital motions.) Although Dawn’s average altitude will be 915 miles (1,470 kilometers), its actual distance above the ground will vary over a range of about 25 miles (40 kilometers).

In March we summarized the four Ceres mapping orbits along with a guarantee that the dates would change. In addition to delivering exciting interplanetary adventures to thrill anyone who has ever gazed at the night sky in wonder, Dawn delivers on its promises. Therefore, we present the updated table here. With such a long and complex mission taking place in orbit around the largest previously uncharted world in the inner solar system, further changes are highly likely. (Nevertheless, we would consider the probability to be low that changes will occur for the phases in the past.)

Table showing Dawn's activities during the various mapping orbits
Find out more about Dawn's activities during these mapping orbits: RC3, survey, HAMO, LAMO

Click on the name of each orbit for a more detailed description. As a reminder, the last column illustrates how large Ceres appears to be from Dawn’s perspective by comparing it with a view of a soccer ball. (Note that Ceres is not only 4.4 million times the diameter of a soccer ball but it is a lot more fun to play with.)

Resolute and resilient, Dawn patiently continues its graceful spirals, propelled not only by its ion engine but also by the passions of everyone who yearns for new knowledge and noble adventures. Humankind’s robotic emissary is well on its way to providing more fascinating insights for everyone who longs to know the cosmos.

Dawn is 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 1.95 AU (181 million miles, or 291 million kilometers) from Earth, or 785 times as far as the moon and 1.92 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 32 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
8:00 p.m. PDT July 29, 2015

› Learn more about the Dawn mission

TAGS: DAWN, VESTA, CERES, DWARF PLANET, MISSION, SPACECRAFT, BRIGHT SPOTS

  • Marc Rayman
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