This edition of JPL’s first employee periodical, The GALCIT Ear, called for nominations for ‘a bigger and better Santa Claus,’ preferably of those on Lab ‘who bear a marked physical resemblance to the real thing.’

The holiday season has always been a jolly time at JPL. Starting as early as 1944, we see comical advertisements for the annual GALCIT Christmas Party. This edition of JPL’s first employee periodical, The GALCIT Ear, called for nominations for ‘a bigger and better Santa Claus,’ preferably of those on Lab ‘who bear a marked physical resemblance to the real thing.’ To this day, JPL commemorates the holidays with mementos and spirited cards from the Director.

The JPL Archives wishes you a safe and happy holiday season!

We’d love to hear from you! For more information about the history of JPL, please contact the JPL Archives at [See more...] CL#20-5554


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This image, taken during the drive held 13 April 1955, depicts a JPL nurse drawing blood from a JPL donor

JPL has been hosting bi-annual blood drives in conjunction with the Red Cross of America since at least 1951. This image, taken during the drive held 13 April 1955, depicts a JPL nurse drawing blood from a JPL donor. The blood donated during these drives was collected into the 'JPL Blood Bank,’ from which blood was specifically allocated to JPL staffers and their family members in need. Always, but especially now, donating blood is vital for our public health, and as Lab Administrator V.C. Larsen, Jr. said, "That pint of blood you donate might save a life, and that life might be your own!"

We’d love to hear from you! If you can identify anyone in this photo, or for more information about the history of JPL, please contact the JPL Archives at CL#20-4855


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Artist rendering of Ulysses craft in space, flying above Earth

Project Ulysses Team group photo on the steps of Building 180

JPLers and European Space Agency (ESA) staffers working on Ulysses craft

JPL’s first flight project manager, Willis G. Meeks, who sits with a model of Ulysses

6 October celebrates the 30th anniversary of the launch of Ulysses. Formerly known as the International Solar Polar Mission, Ulysses was the first mission to study the never before examined north and south poles of the Sun. [See more...] CL#20-4339


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9 September 2020 marks the 45th anniversary of the launch of Viking Orbiter 2

9 September 2020 marks the 45th anniversary of the launch of Viking Orbiter 2. VO-2 played a crucial role in our current understanding of the Martian landscape. [See more...] CL#20-3845


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A training session next to the JPL fire station, demonstrating how to use the Scott Breath Air Pak

Original text from Lab-Oratory, December 1957, page 8

"AN OUNCE OF know the pitch. It's old but it never goes out of style. The best way to handle fumes, gas, air pollutants, etc., is not to have them in the first place. But if they do occur through accident you sometimes need some air -- fast! If it's in a tank and mask close by, you must be able to use it. Thus, the reason for the activity above, which took place next to the Fire House a few weeks ago.

Jack Lawless, Plant Protection and Safety (in the middle looking like an over-dressed skin diver) has been supplying customers to James Flannery, a representative of Scott Aviation Corp., for instruction on the proper procedure on handling the Scott Breath Air Pak. Left to right: Dr. Robert Poynter (Chemistry), Flannery, Lawless, Roy Vincent (Plant Protection and Safety) and Julia Whittick (Chemistry).


  • Julie Cooper

In this 1988 photo, JPL Director Dr. Lew Allen (left) and his Deputy Director Dr. Peter Lyman

Dr. Peter T. Lyman in January 1990

Deputy Director Dr. Peter T. Lyman in his 9th floor office in August 1989

This month we remember Dr. Peter T. Lyman, who passed away in May 2020, with a series of photos from his tenure as Deputy Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Dr. Lyman joined JPL in 1963, after serving in the Merchant Marine and Military Sea Transport Service. He earned three degrees, including a master's in naval architecture and a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He worked on several different Mars missions at the beginning of his career, then became a manager with increasing responsibility in spacecraft design, information systems, mission management, and the Deep Space Network. Dr. Lyman became Deputy Director in 1987 and served in that position until he retired in 1992. He passed away on May 6, 2020 at the age of 90.

Explore the archives at


  • Julie Cooper

Dawn, Earth, Mars, Vesta, Ceres

Following a successful mission, Dawn mission operations concluded successfully on Oct. 31. (Please note the understated elegance of that sentence.)

After more than 11 years in deep space, after unveiling the two largest uncharted worlds in the inner solar system, after overcoming myriad daunting obstacles, Dawn's interplanetary adventure came to an end. 

We explained in detail in the two August Dawn Journals that the spaceship would deplete its supply of hydrazine, which was essential for controlling its orientation as it orbited dwarf planet Ceres. We predicted that the last of the hydrazine would be spent between mid-September and mid-October (although we acknowledged that it could be earlier or later). Dawn, ever the overachiever, held on until the end of October, and the explorer was productive to the very end. This was the best way to end a mission. It was good to the last drop!

Dawn image
This is one of Dawn's last pictures of Ceres, taken on Sept. 1. As explained below, by that date, when the spacecraft was at low altitude, the ground beneath it was in darkness. But 10 hours after skimming low over the ground, Dawn looked down from 2,340 miles (3,770 kilometers). From this vantage point, the gleaming features in Occator Crater were as mesmerizing as ever. Cerealia Facula, the bright center of the crater, was 2,470 miles (3,970 kilometers) away. Dawn was looking south, so Vinalia Faculae, the grouping of other bright regions to the east, are left of Cerealia Facula, opposite the usual perspective. (Rotate the picture to put the limb at the bottom to see the conventional orientation.) We have seen many other views of the 57-mile (92-kilometer) Occator Crater and its highly reflective deposits of salt, most recently last monthFull image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn took us on a truly amazing solar system journey. Never content simply to do the same thing over and over, the flight team kept coming up with new kinds of activities and new kinds of observations from new orbital perspectives. With such a long and constantly active mission, it may have seemed like it would just keep going. For readers who did not keep up with our recent forecasts of the end, it might be worth recognizing Stein's Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” (The eponymous economist who both conceived of and named this epigram was Herbert Stein.) 

Dawn demonstrates not only Stein's Law but also Davies’ Corollaries (proposed by Daniel Davies, a financial analyst):

1. Things that can’t go on forever, go on much longer than you think they will.

2. Corollary 1 applies even after taking into account Corollary 1.

When it stopped, Dawn was in its extended mission orbit 7 (XMO7). Every 27 hours, the intrepid ship dove from 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) to 22 miles (35 kilometers) above the ground, only three times higher than a typical passenger aircraft travels over Earth, and then soared back up again. It had a fantastic view as it streaked over the alien landscape at 1,050 mph (1,690 kph). (While the supply of hydrazine was very limited, it seemed there was no end to the adrenaline. Too bad Dawn's reaction control thrusters couldn't use that chemical instead.) The spacecraft expertly performed high-resolution measurements, providing scientists with a wealth of exquisite data and giving everyone incredibly detailed looks at the exotic sights. 

Dawn image
Dawn observed this area southwest of Cerealia Facula, near the center of Occator Crater, on July 4 from an altitude of 30 miles (48 kilometers). The view here is 3.0 miles (4.8 kilometers) across. Sunlight comes from the top of the picture, so the many straight features that are light on the bottom and dark on the top are fractures in the ground. Similarly, craters are light on the bottom, where the crater wall catches the light, and dark on the top, where the wall is in shade. Elevated features, like mounds, in this strange terrain are light on the top and dark on the bottom. Several pictures in the Aug. 22 Dawn Journal show similar fractured scenery. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

On Oct. 31, Dawn flew down to peridemeter (the low point of its elliptical orbit) shortly after 5:00 am PDT. As always, to keep its solar arrays pointed at the Sun and its sensors pointed at the ground, it had to fire its hydrazine thrusters extensively. Using the thrusters was routine after having operated for more than half of its time in space without the use of the reaction wheels that were intended for controlling its orientation, but which had failed. While the spacecraft didn't know the hydrazine was about to run out, mission controllers had known for quite some time.

As is typical for missions in deep space, Dawn operated most of the time out of radio contact. NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) cannot serve all missions simultaneously, and often spacecraft have tasks to perform that are incompatible with radio communications. As it turned out, however, Dawn's final moments happened to be while the largest antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California was tracking it. The 230-foot (70-meter) antenna thus allowed the flight team to hear Dawn's swan song.

We have described before that with Dawn broadcasting through an auxiliary antenna when it flew close to the ground, scientists and engineers could learn about Ceres' interior. The spacecraft's radio signal was too weak to carry data to the DSN. Rather, it was as if Dawn were playing a single note with no variation. That may not make for an especially imaginative or melodious performance, but as different regions underground exerted their gravitational pulls and accelerated and decelerated the probe, the Doppler shift was music to the ears of planetary geologists. 

By observing changes in the strength and some other characteristics of the signal (and knowing the likely explanation), engineers were able to reconstruct some of the spacecraft's final actions. Around 20 minutes after it was at peridemeter, still quite low but with its momentum starting to carry it back up to high altitudes, the hydrazine thrusters became ineffective. Dawn recognized that it could no longer control its orientation (although it did not know the reason) and systematically proceeded through all the contingency procedures possible, such as swapping to backup equipment and even rebooting its main computer. It made valiant attempts and continued to operate with the professionalism of a dedicated, veteran space explorer, but without hydrazine, there was nothing it could do. The outcome was inevitable. Dawn was up against an unsolvable problem. 

Dawn image
Dawn's interplanetary trajectory (in blue). Over the course of the mission, we have charted the spaceship's progress on this figure, most recently in September. There will be little need to update it again. Larger view. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Although the spacecraft's depletion of hydrazine and subsequent inability to communicate had been predicted for quite some time, your correspondent considered it worthwhile to verify the diagnosis. It was possible, albeit highly unlikely, that some other problem had befallen Dawn and that after the scheduled session with the Goldstone antenna, the sophisticated robot would solve it and try to reestablish radio contact. 

The plan then was for the flight team to look for Dawn at night. Hours after young trick-or-treaters everywhere had finished extorting sweets from their elders, when Earth had rotated so that another 230-foot (70-meter) antenna, the largest at the Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex, could point at Dawn's location in the sky, controllers listened again. Not even the faintest whisper was heard. The remote spacecraft was orbiting Ceres as silently as the cold vacuum of space itself. 

After more than 11 years of an incredibly exciting, fantastically fruitful, extremely difficult, deeply rewarding, super fun and just totally awesome interplanetary adventure, your correspondent declared the mission over shortly before 1:30 am PDT on Nov. 1. 

The mission had been a dream come true. Now the dream was over. 

Somehow, the stark reality of the end of the phantasmagorical mission in the middle of the night seemed to turn upside down the meaning of a proverb commonly (but vaguely) attributed to Africa: "However long the night, dawn will break."

This video captures some of the highlights of Dawn's interplanetary adventure, as well as some personal reflections on it.

With a rare excursion into first person, I wrote in my Aug. 22 Dawn Journal about how I felt with the mission coming to an end (and offered a fanciful additional perspective at the end of my Sept. 27 Dawn Journal). My feelings were unchanged when the end came. Nevertheless, in the actual event, I wrote down some of my thoughts, because Dawn was such a significant part of my life, and I am well aware of the fallibility of human memory. Memories, however vivid, are often more of a reconstruction than people like to believe.

But I quickly realized that it didn't matter how I was feeling! Here is an unedited excerpt of what I wrote after declaring the mission to be over: "These feelings are transitory, and I don't need to remember them anyway. It would be a mistake to consider how I feel now as somehow representing my overall experience or feelings about the mission. Indeed, this is very much the wrong time to try to put it into perspective. It would make a good story if I had some revelation or profound description of my feelings at this point, but there's no reason I should. It takes time to gain a good perspective. People construct and then gradually change their memories, all without any awareness. And I should not think that somehow now I will be imbued with the wisdom, insight, or other capability to put this into perspective. If I feel sad, elated, disappointed, relieved, proud, empty, gratified or any of myriad other feelings -- and, more to the point, a combination of myriad feelings -- I won't feel that way again. The end of Dawn is not what's important. All that preceded it is. And I cannot so easily grasp it all right now, so my feelings now are not as special or as meaningful as one might be tempted to think."

Finally, you can't appreciate the end of the mission if you don't appreciate the rest of the mission. So, feel free to reread the previous 310,000 words in Dawn Journals to gain the full appreciation.

There will be future opportunities to address some of the overall accomplishments of the mission and discoveries about Ceres. For now, we will devote more attention to this final phase. 

And there was no doubt about its finality. On Nov. 1-2, immediately after the official end of the mission, there was not enough time to reallocate previously scheduled DSN antenna time to other missions. So although confidence was high that Dawn would forever be silent, each of the three deep space communications complexes (Goldstone, then Canberra, and then Madrid) turned a sensitive ear to Ceres for one last time. No surprises occurred.

Dawn image
Dawn took this picture of a ridge in the center of Urvara Crater on July 16 from an altitude of 32 miles (58 kilometers). The scene is 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) wide. Note the patterns of flow down the slope. We saw this landscape from twice as high (and therefore with only half as much detail) in August. The location of peridemeter shifted in XMO7, so during the 10 days between the earlier picture and this one, Dawn's altitude when it flew over this location decreased, allowing it to capture this sharper view. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The final phase of Dawn's exploration began in June when it completed maneuvering to XMO7. We have explained that as the orbit precessed so that peridemeter gradually shifted from Ceres' day side to the night side, photography, infrared spectroscopy and visible spectroscopy became less valuable. The spacecraft had collected a tremendous number of such measurements earlier in the mission, so when it flew over illuminated terrain in XMO7 at higher altitudes than it had already been, new observations were not worthwhile. (Low altitude measurements of Ceres' nuclear radiation and gravity continued in darkness to the very end of the mission.)

Recognizing that the hydrazine would be long gone by the time peridemeter moved back to the day side, controllers took advantage of a nice opportunity at higher altitude for a last, fond look at Ceres on Sept. 1-2. As the dwarf planet pirouetted before the admiring eye of its permanent companion, Dawn recorded its final views of Ceres. One of them is shown above and another is below.

Dawn image
On Sept. 1 while coasting up, Dawn looked back at Ceres from an altitude of 2,220 miles (3,570 kilometers). Prominent on the limb, at a distance of 2,500 miles (4,030 kilometers), is Ceres' youngest cryovolcano, Ahuna Mons. Scientists have identified more than 20 other likely Cerean cryovolcanoes, but they are generally less distinct, because, like some of the craters, the dwarf planet slowly erases them. We have seen many other views of Ahuna Mons, most recently here. We saw the mountain on the limb (with Occator Crater in the view as well) from even higher up last yearFull image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

On Sept. 28 and 29, Dawn performed a calibration of the camera and the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer for one last time. They are precision scientific instruments, and the thorough analysis of their data depends on accurate knowledge of their sensitivity and other properties. The team has conducted calibrations throughout the mission so even slight changes could be detected and accounted for in interpreting the pictures and spectra and drawing conclusions about the nature of Vesta and Ceres. Dawn expended a little more of its remaining hydrazine to point the instruments at the stars Vega and Arcturus, which they had observed before. Indeed, the first time was less than three months after the journey began in 2007 (and Vega still holds special significance).

Even though Dawn took no more pictures nor infrared or visible spectra of Ceres after the beginning of September, it acquired a great many before that, far exceeding the team's expectations when planning this phase of the mission. In XMO7, the spacecraft sent more than 11,000 photographs of Ceres to Earth, almost all of them at very low altitude, revealing amazing new details. (This brought the total for Vesta plus Ceres to more than 100,000 pictures.) Also during XMO7, Dawn provided scientists with more than three million infrared spectra and almost 50,000 visible spectra. 

We have explained before that Ceres' nuclear glow is very faint, so the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) requires a great deal of data to make its measurements, just as a camera needs a long exposure to record a dark scene. Despite its name, GRaND is meek and unprepossessing, but the instrument does do a wonderful job revealing the atomic composition of the material down to about a yard (meter) underground. GRaND does not need illumination, so it continued to operate even as Dawn glided over ground cloaked in the deep dark of night. 

In XMO7, GRaND acquired 140 hours of nuclear spectra from altitudes below Dawn's previous low altitude orbit, at 240 miles (385 kilometers) in 2015-2016. And it accumulated 50 hours of measurements of Ceres' radiation from within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the ground. GRaND collected about four times as much data in XMO7 as scientists needed to meet their objectives. This will allow them to see Ceres' elemental abundances with much sharper resolution, like a close-up picture, than ever before. 

Like the other investigations, gravity measurements far surpassed what the team expected not only when planning XMO7 but even when the spacecraft was there.

Dawn image
This 3-D image of an area northeast of Cerealia Facula was constructed with two photos Dawn took from an altitude of 21 miles (34 kilometers) in June. The spacecraft peered down at this exotic landscape from different angles in two orbital passes, providing the pair of stereo pictures. To perceive the 3-D, you need color filters, with red for your left eye and blue for your right. (You could get a 4-D view by looking at it for a while. However, apart from the daily and annual changes in the angle of the incoming sunlight, no changes are expected to be discernible even over a few years. Patience, and a follow-up mission, would be required.) Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/USRA-Lunar and Planetary Institute

With the smooth and productive operations in XMO7, these successes may all seem pretty simple. After all, it's only the cutting edge of rocket science, operating an ion propelled spaceship at incredibly low altitude around a dwarf planet well over a million times farther away than the International Space Station. But there were a few challenges to overcome. The team confronted and solved myriad problems to accomplish so much. 

Now, even if you don't have your own interplanetary spacecraft, you can explore Ceres and do so from the comfort of your home. Instead of going all the way to the main asteroid belt, bring that distant world to your computer with Cerestrek. You can also see all the sights on the first world Dawn unveiled with Vestatrek.

Dawn, however, will never again explore alien worlds. It will never again emit a bluish beam of xenon ions. It will never again communicate with beings on the faraway planet where its voyage began. It will never again perform any of the functions or tasks it executed so admirably on its remarkable journey. For decades, and quite possibly even for centuries, the ship that undertook a long, daring, difficult and successful deep-space expedition on behalf of humankind will remain silently in orbit around Ceres. It has become an inert celestial monument to the power of human ingenuity, creativity, and curiosity, a lasting reminder that our passion for bold adventures and our noble aspirations to know the cosmos can take us very, very far beyond the confines of our humble home.

Dawn is 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.53 AU (328 million miles, or 527 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,320 times as far as the moon and 3.56 times as far as the Sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, will never again make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
7:30 am PST November 11, 2018


  • Marc Rayman

Canyons in Occator Crater

Today Dawn is celebrating its 11th anniversary of spaceflight. This is the last dawnniversary the spacecraft will see. The venerable adventurer's mission will end very soon. Indeed, it could happen at any moment. In the meantime, Dawn is making the most of its remaining lifetime, performing exquisitely detailed measurements of dwarf planet Ceres. It will do so right to the very last moment.

In the two Dawn Journals from last month, we described the end of the mission (and what will happen for the next few decades). But with the probe still operating, let's join it in reviewing how far it has come since leaving Cape Canaveral 11 years ago. 

Dawn image
Dawn climbs to space on Sept. 27, 2007, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Dawn launched at dawn (7:34 am EDT). Image credit: KSC/NASA

After its short dawn ride to space on a Delta, Dawn began its long interplanetary expedition atop a cool blue beam from its ion engines. The spacecraft sailed past Mars in 2009 and in 2011 entered orbit around Vesta, the second largest body in the main asteroid belt. During 14 months there, it revealed Vesta to be more like the terrestrial planets, including the one on which Dawn was conceived and built (and where its controllers still reside), than like the much smaller chunks of rock we know as asteroids. In 2012, propelled by a zephyr of xenon ions, the ship set sail on the cosmic seas once again, its sights set on the largest uncharted world between the Sun and Pluto. Ceres took the traveler into a gentle but permanent gravitational hold in 2015. Thanks to curious and creative creatures on Earth, Ceres now has a moon named Dawn.

During its 11th year in deep space, the explorer undertook some of its most ambitious activities of the entire mission. Unlike missions limited to a brief glimpse of their targets during a flyby, Dawn has taken great advantage of being able to conduct comprehensive studies of Ceres (and Vesta). And thanks to the maneuverability afforded by its ion engines, the spacecraft has frequently changed its orbit to optimize its investigations. We described earlier this year how Dawn flew to extended mission orbit 6 (XMO6) for a new campaign of photography and other measurements. Following that, early in June the spaceship used its ion engine to descend to XMO7, in which it dives down to about 22 miles (35 kilometers) above the ground, only three times your altitude when you travel in a commercial jet. (Perhaps you ought to consider traveling by spaceship. Note that Dawn travels a little faster than a jet, although it does require some patience to reach the top speed. We will see more about this below.)

Dawn image
Dawn image
As Dawn was soaring up after completing its low altitude observations on August 14, it turned to view the limb of Ceres, a perspective that your correspondent is particularly fond of. The observation was timed to capture the 57-mile (92-kilometer) Occator Crater with its gleaming Cerealia Facula and, above and to the left of it, Vinalia Faculae. These two pictures were taken only seven seconds apart and differ only in exposure time, the upper one set for most of Ceres, which is dark, and the lower one set for the strong reflection from the sodium carbonate deposits. Together they illustrate just how brilliant the faculae are. The spacecraft was about 1,350 miles (2,170 kilometers) from Cerealia Facula when it captured this pair of neat views. We are accustomed to seeing Vinalia Faculae to the right (east) of Cerealia Facula. Dawn was looking south for these pictures, so the positions are reversed. (Rotate the pictures to put the upper right corner at the bottom if you prefer to see the usual relative positions.) We saw a similar perspective of Occator on the limb in November 2016Full image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The orbit was initially aligned so the low point, known as peridemeter, would be in the vicinity of Occator Crater on the dayside of Ceres, allowing the spacecraft to obtain stunning pictures and other data. We discussed in March and in June that the peridemeter gradually shifts south. As it did so, the focus of the close-up observations moved to Urvara Crater. In late August, to the delight of everyone interested in the exploration of space, Dawn was still operating productively, and by then, the peridemeter had moved to its greatest southerly latitude of 84° (corresponding to the orbital inclination, for those who understand orbits). Since then, it has progressed north on the other side of Ceres, opposite the Sun. (If this progression isn't clear, see the diagram in March and imagine continuing the trend of the orbital precession it illustrates.) Now the peridemeter has moved so far to the nightside that throughout Dawn's time over illuminated terrain, it is higher than it was in previous orbits. There is little new to see now from higher up. Therefore, Dawn no longer conducts visible or infrared observations, but it is continuing to measure nuclear radiation and the gravity field, both of which provide valuable insight into the nature of the dwarf planet.

On every Sept. 27, we reflect on this unique interplanetary adventure. For those who would like to track the probe’s progress in the same terms used on past anniversaries, we present here the 11th annual summary, reusing text from previous years with updates where appropriate. Readers who wish to investigate Dawn’s ambitious journey in detail may find it helpful to compare this material with the Dawn Journals from its firstsecondthirdfourthfifthsixthseventheighthninth and tenth anniversaries.

In its 11 years of interplanetary travels, the spacecraft has thrust with its ion engines for a total of 2,141 days (5.9 years), or 53 percent of the time (and 0.000000043 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 907 pounds (411 kilograms) of its supply of xenon propellant, which was 937 pounds (425 kilograms) on Sept. 27, 2007. The spacecraft has used 69 of the 71 gallons (261 of the 270 liters) of xenon it carried when it rode its rocket from Earth into space. (Note that on the tenth anniversary, we actually gave a slightly higher xenon cost. Dawn has not refueled since then. For technical reasons we will not delve into, it is very difficult to compute the xenon consumption late in the mission. Engineers devoted extensive effort to refining their measurements of the xenon during the past year, resulting in a small change in their final calculation of how much xenon Dawn has used.) We saw in June that Dawn will never use its ion propulsion system again. We have the spacecraft right where we want it.

Dawn image

Dawn observed this section of Urvara Crater's north wall on July 16, the 272nd birthday of Giuseppe Piazzi, who discovered Ceres in 1801. The spacecraft was 33 miles (54 kilometers) high and 7.5 million times closer to Ceres than Piazzi had been. This scene, which is 3.2 miles (5.2 kilometers) wide, is above the large crater inside Urvara in the picture we saw in November 2015. In addition to the very large segment of Urvara's wall that has detached here, you can see boulders that have slid part of the way down the wall as well as trails left by boulders that fell farther, out of the picture. We have seen all or part of the 106-mile (170-kilometer) Urvara Crater many times, including a site last month very close to this one, slightly east (and slightly lower), where boulders were visible at the end of their trails at the bottom of the wall. Full image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The thrusting since launch has achieved the equivalent of accelerating the probe by 25,700 mph (41,400 kph). 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. 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.) It is remarkable that Dawn’s ion propulsion system has provided nearly the same change in speed as the entire Delta rocket.

Since launch, our readers who have remained on or near Earth have completed 11 revolutions around the Sun, covering 69.1 AU (6.4 billion miles, or 10.3 billion kilometers). Orbiting farther from the Sun, and thus moving at a more leisurely pace, Dawn has traveled 46.4 AU (4.3 billion miles, or 6.9 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 11 years since Dawn began its voyage, Vesta has traveled only 44.9 AU (4.2 billion miles, or 6.7 billion kilometers), and the even more sedate Ceres has gone 41.8 AU (3.9 billion miles, or 6.3 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 11 years. You will see that as the strength of the Sun’s gravitational grip weakens at greater distance, the corresponding orbital speed decreases.)

Comparing mileage with cars is highly misleading, but some readers can't help but try to make that comparison. The reason it is deceptive is that cars have to keep burning fuel to move as they overcome friction, but orbiting objects normally move without propulsion at all. Earth has completed its annual trip around the Sun (currently 584 million miles, or 940 million kilometers) for billions of years without requiring any propellant at all. Similarly, spacecraft coast most of the time. With ion propulsion, Dawn (and Deep Space 1 before it) were the exceptions, thrusting more often than coasting. But readers who require a comparison with their car (or their spaceship) can credit Dawn with 63 million miles per gallon (0.0000038 liters per 100 kilometers, or 3.8 liters per 100 million kilometers).

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 even 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, Dawn, Vesta and Ceres) follow their individual paths around the Sun, they sometimes move closer and sometimes move farther from it.

Dawn image
Dawn’s interplanetary trajectory (in blue). The dates in white show Dawn’s location every Sept. 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 Sept. 27 to the next is shorter. In addition to seeing Dawn’s progress on this figure on previous anniversaries of launch, we have seen it other times as well, most recently in AprilImage credit: NASA/JPL

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 Sept. 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)
Earth’s orbit 0.981.020.0°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2007 (before launch)0.981.020.0°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2007 (after launch)1.001.620.6°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20081.211.681.4°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20091.421.876.2°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20101.892.136.8°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20112.152.577.1°
Vesta’s orbit2.152.577.1°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20122.172.577.3°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20132.442.988.7°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20142.463.029.8°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20152.562.9810.6°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20162.562.9810.6°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20172.562.9810.6°
Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 20182.562.9810.6°
Ceres’ orbit2.562.9810.6°

For readers who are not overwhelmed by the number of numbers, investing the effort to study the table may help to demonstrate how Dawn patiently transformed its orbit during the course of its mission. Note that seven 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 exotic world in such detail. Dawn has long since gone well beyond that. Having discovered so many of Vesta’s secrets, the adventurer left it behind. No other spacecraft has ever escaped from orbit around one distant solar system object to travel to and orbit still another extraterrestrial destination. From 2012 to 2015, the stalwart craft reshaped and tilted its orbit even more so that now it is identical to Ceres’. Once again, that was essential to accomplishing the intricate celestial choreography in which 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 image
Dawn spotted these canyons east of the center of Urvara Crater from an altitude of 31 miles (50 kilometers) on July 31. The scene is 3.0 miles (4.8 kilometers) wide. The canyons run roughly north-south, but the picture is oriented so sunlight comes from the top to make the topography easier to interpret. This rugged terrain is to the right of Urvara's central ridge in a view we presented in November 2015 and to the right and slightly below the ridge in the top half of a picture we saw in MayFull image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn has had a long and productive life. Indeed, many readers might agree that Dawn has accomplished much, much more in its life than, say, a Nathusius' pipistrelle does in its life, which lasts about the same length of time. (And while Nathusius' pipistrelle was honored as the first-ever "Bat Species of the Year," Dawn has been honored for its accomplishments too, although somewhat different ones.) For our chiroptophobic readers, Dawn's lifetime also is about the same as a paradoxical frog, a magnificent hummingbird (recently renamed Rivoli's hummingbird), and a Taipan beauty snake. They also tend not to achieve nearly as much in their lifetimes as Dawn has, although it's nice that all those names have some connection with Dawn's magnificent exploration of two worlds, paradoxically at similar distances from the Sun and yet dramatically different, and each beautiful in its way. 

Since the two August Dawn Journals, some people have expressed wishes that Dawn would live even longer. I would say it has already lasted longer! The hydrazine could have been depleted much earlier. Indeed, the mission could easily have ended years ago. Life is not easy in the forbidding depths of space, far from Earth. There are many reasons the mission could have concluded early, including the failures of the probe's reaction wheelsDawn has flown more than half of its time in space without the use of those gyro-like devices, which had previously been considered indispensable for the mission. It is only through the near-heroic work of the flight team that, despite those failures and the many other challenges Dawn has faced, the prime mission concluded successfully in 2016. Dawn is now near the end of its second extension. One can even fantasize that Dawn did, in fact, fail early, succumbing to one of the risks during its unique and ambitious mission, dodging only 999 of 1,000 bullets, and that many of the fabulous pictures and other data from uncharted worlds were never acquired. And then somehow, we said, "If only..." with enough fervor, and we wished hard enough that the fatal problem had not occurred, and presto: we were granted a second chance! Then we could now be the beneficiaries. We might be living in that alternate universe, unaware that, in the original timeline, we were not so lucky. There is good reason not to believe that, but it may provide some perspective on our being fortunate that Dawn has lived so long and been so productive in its extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition

Dawn is 770 miles (1,230 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.58 AU (333 million miles, or 536 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,385 times as far as the moon and 3.57 times as far as the Sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:34 am PDT September 27, 2018


  • Marc Rayman

Cerealia Facula on Ceres

People have been gazing in wonder and appreciation at the beauty of the night sky throughout the history of our species. The gleaming jewels in the seemingly infinite black of space ignite passions and stir myriad thoughts and feelings, from the trivial to the profound. Many people have been inspired to learn more, sometimes even devoting their lives to the pursuit of new knowledge. Since Galileo pointed his telescope up four centuries ago and beheld astonishing new sights, more and more celestial gems have been discovered, making us ever richer.

In a practical sense, Dawn brought two of those jewels down to Earth, or at least brought them more securely within the scope of Earthlings' knowledge. Science and technology together have uncloaked and explained aspects of the universe that would otherwise have seemed entirely inscrutable. Vesta and Ceres revealed little of themselves as they were observed with telescopes for more than two centuries. Throughout that time, they beckoned, waiting for a visitor from distant Earth. Finally their cosmic invitations were answered when Dawn arrived to introduce each of them to Earth, whereupon the two planet-like worlds gave up many of their secrets.

Even now, Ceres continues to do so, as it holds Dawn in its firm but gentle gravitational embrace. Every 27 hours, almost once a day, the orbiting explorer plunges from 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) high to as low as about 22 miles (35 kilometers) and then shoots back up again. Each time Dawn races over the alien landscapes, it gathers information to add to the detailed story it has been compiling on the dwarf planet.

This perspective on Cerealia Facula was constructed with photographs Dawn took from as low as 22 miles (35 kilometers) combined with the topography determined with stereo pictures Dawn took in 2016 from an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). We saw a 3-D view of this area, albeit with much less detail, hereFull image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Dawn began its ambitious mission in 2007. (And on Aug. 17, 2018, it passed a milestone: three Vestan years of being in space.) But the mission is rapidly approaching its conclusion. In the previous Dawn Journal, we began an in-depth discussion of the end, and we continue it here.

We described how the spacecraft will lose the ability to control its orientation, perhaps as soon as September. It will struggle for a short time, but it will be impotent. Unable to point its electricity-generating solar panels at the Sun or its radio antenna to Earth, the seasoned explorer will go silent and will explore no more. Its expedition will be over.

We also took a short look at the long-term fate of the spacecraft. To ensure the integrity of possible future exploration that may focus on the chemistry related to life, planetary protection protocols dictate that Dawn not contact Ceres for at least 20 years. Despite being in an orbit that regularly dips so low, the spaceship will continue to revolve around its gravitational master for at least that long and, with very high confidence, for more than 50 years. The terrestrial materials that compose the probe will not contaminate the alien world before another Earth ship could arrive.

Dawn took this picture of the northwestern edge of Cerealia Facula on July 3 from an altitude of 30 miles (48 kilometers). The scene is 2.9 miles (4.6 kilometers) wide. Full image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Like its human colleagues, Dawn started out on Earth, but now its permanent residence in the solar system, Ceres, is far, far away. Let's bring this cosmic landscape into perspective.

Imagine Earth reduced to the size of a soccer ball. On this scale, the International Space Station would orbit at an altitude of a bit more than one-quarter of an inch (7 millimeters). The moon would be a billiard ball almost 21 feet (6.4 meters) away. The Sun, the conductor of the solar system orchestra, would be 79 feet (24 meters) across at a distance of 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers). More remote even than that, when Dawn ceases operating, it would be more than 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) from the soccer ball. The ship will stay locked in orbit around Ceres, the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system. The largest object between Mars and Jupiter, that distant orb would be five-eighths of an inch (1.6 centimeters) across, about the size of a grape. Of course, a grape has a higher water content than Ceres, but exploring this fascinating world of ice, rock and salt has been so much sweeter!

Now let's take a less terrestrial viewpoint and shift our reference to Ceres. Suppose it were the size of a soccer ball. In Dawn's final, elliptical orbit, which it entered in June, the spacecraft would travel only 37 inches (94 centimeters) away at its farthest point. Then it would go in to skim a mere one-third of an inch (8 millimeters) from the ball.

Dawn observed these domes and fractures south of Cerealia Facula on July 3 (and then streaked farther north to take the picture above). The spacecraft was 28 miles (44 kilometers) high when it recorded this scene, which is 2.6 miles (4.2 kilometers) across. The picture is oriented with the sunlight coming from the top, so features light at the top and dark at the bottom are elevated. Depressions, including the craters and fractures, have the opposite lighting. Full image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn is one mission among many to explore the solar system, dating back almost 60 years and (we hope) continuing and even accelerating for much longer into the future. Learning about the cosmos is not a competition but rather a collective effort of humankind to advance our understanding. And to clarify one of the many popular mistaken notions about the solar system, let's take advantage of reducing Ceres to the size of a soccer ball to put some other bodies in perspective.

Because it is in the main asteroid belt, there is a common misconception that Ceres is just another asteroid, somehow like the ones visited by other spacecraft. It is not. The dwarf planet is distinctly unlike the small chunks of rock that are more typical asteroids. We have discussed various aspects of Ceres' complex geology, and much more remains to be gleaned from Dawn's data. Vesta too has a rich and complicated geology, and it is more akin to the terrestrial planets (including Earth) than to asteroids. But for now, let's focus simply on the size in order to make for an easy comparison. Of course, size is not a measure of interest or importance, but it will illustrate how dramatically different these objects are.

This artist's concept summarizes the picture scientists have formulated of Ceres' interior structure thanks to Dawn's exploration. Unlike small chunks of rock, including typical asteroids, the dwarf planet is so large and massive that it differentiated, a geological term indicating it separated into distinct layers, with different density and different composition at different depths. It is not yet known whether there is a dense core, like the iron-nickel center of Earth or of Vesta. The green part, the mantle, is principally hydrated rocks, which are minerals that incorporate water (such as clay). The brighter green layer is a sort of transition zone at the top of the mantle, 40 miles (60 kilometers) or more thick. It has not only hydrated rocks but perhaps also briny water, making a sort of mud. Surrounding that is the crust, which is only half the density of the mantle. This outermost layer, going from the surface down to about 25 miles (40 kilometers), consists of a mixture of rock, ice, salt, more hydrated minerals and clathrates. A clathrate is like a molecular cage of water that imprisons a gas molecule. Clathrates are often found on the ocean floor on Earth. They are much stronger than ice at the same temperature and give the crust much greater strength than it would otherwise have. Full image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

With a soccer-ball-sized Ceres, Vesta would be nearly five inches (more than 12 centimeters) in diameter. (This writer's comprehensive knowledge of sports inspires him to describe this as a ball nearly five inches, or more than 12 centimeters, in diameter.)

What about some of the asteroids being explored as Dawn's mission winds to an end? There are two wonderfully exciting missions with major events at asteroids (albeit ones much closer to Earth than the main asteroid belt) in the second half of 2018. Your correspondent, a lifelong space enthusiast, is as hopeful for success as anyone! Hayabusa2 is revealing Ryugu and OSIRIS-REx is on the verge of unveiling Bennu.

Dawn observed this section of Occator Crater's northeastern wall from an altitude of 27 miles (44 kilometers) on June 9. The scene is 2.6 miles (4.2 kilometers) wide. Full image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ryugu and Bennu are more irregular in shape than Ceres and Vesta, but they would both be so small compared to the soccer ball that their specific shapes wouldn't matter. Ryugu would be less than a hundredth of an inch (a quarter of a millimeter) across. Bennu would be about half that size. They would be like two grains of sand compared to the soccer ball. In the first picture of the June Dawn Journal, we remarked on the detail visible in a feature photographed on one of Dawn's low streaks over the alien terrain. It is also visible in the first two pictures above. That one structure on Ceres is only a part of Cerealia Facula, which is the bright center of the much larger Occator Crater. Occator is a good-sized crater, but not even among the 10 largest on Ceres. Yet that one bright feature in the high-resolution photo is larger than either of these small asteroids. In many of Dawn's pictures that show the entire disk of the dwarf planet (like the rotation movie and the color picture here), Ryugu and Bennu would be less than a pixel, undetectably small, just as invisible specks of dust on a soccer ball.

The tremendous difference in size between Ceres (and Vesta) and small asteroids illustrates a widely unappreciated diversity in the solar system. Of course, that is part of the motivation for continuing to explore. There is a great deal yet to be learned!

Although Ryugu and Bennu aren't in the main asteroid belt, the belt contains many more Lilliputian asteroids closer in size to them than to the Brobdingnagian Ceres and Vesta. In fact, of the millions of objects in the main asteroid belt, Ceres by itself contains 35 percent of the total mass. Vesta has 10 percent of the total.

Readers with perfect memories may note that we used slightly smaller fractions in earlier Dawn Journals. Science advances! More recent estimates of the mass of the asteroid belt are slightly lower, so these percentages are now correspondingly higher. The difference is not significant, but the small increase only emphasizes how different Vesta and Ceres are from typical residents of the asteroid belt. It's also noteworthy -- or, at least, pretty cool -- that Dawn has single-handedly explored 45 percent of the mass between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn was 29 miles (46 kilometers) high on July 1 when it took this photograph showing the complex distribution of reflective salts in part of Vinalia Faculae. (We saw other views of this bright area east of Cerealia Facula in the previous Dawn Journal.) The scene is 2.7 miles (4.4 kilometers) across. Full image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn will end its mission in the same orbit it is in now, looping around from a fraction of an inch (fraction of a centimeter) to a yard (a meter) from the soccer-ball-sized Ceres. In the previous Dawn Journal, we described what will happen onboard the spacecraft. We also saw that the most likely indication controllers will have that Dawn has run out of hydrazine will be its radio silence. They will take some carefully considered steps to verify that that is the correct conclusion.

But it is certain that emotions will be ahead of rationality. Even as team members are narrowing down the causes for the disappearance of the radio signal, many strong feelings about the end of the mission will arise. And they will be as varied as the people on the Dawn team, every one of whom has worked long and hard to make the mission so successful. Your correspondent can make reasonable guesses about their feelings but won't be so presumptuous as to do so.

As for my own feelings, well, I won't know until it happens, but I'm not too presumptuous to guess now. Long-time readers may recognize that your correspondent has avoided writing anything about himself (with a few rare exceptions), or even using first person, in his Dawn Journals. They are meant to be a record of a mission undertaken by humankind, for everyone who longs for knowledge and for adventures in the cosmos. But now I will devote a few words to my own perspective.

My love affair with the universe began when I was four, and my passion has burned brighter and brighter ever since. I knew when I was a starry-eyed nine-year-old that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in physics and work for NASA, although it was a few more years before I did. I had my own Galileo moment of discovery and awe when I first turned a telescope to the sky. Science and space exploration are part of me. They make me who I am. (My friend Mat Kaplan at The Planetary Society described me in the beginning of this video as "the ultimate space nerd." He's too kind!) Adding to my own understanding and contributing to humankind's knowledge are among my greatest rewards.

Passion and dedication are not the whole story. I recognize how incredibly lucky I am to be doing what I have loved for so long. I am lucky to have had access to the resources I have needed. I am lucky that I was able to do well in my formal education and in my own informal (but extensive) studies. I am lucky I could find the discipline and motivation within myself. For that matter, I am lucky to be able to communicate in terms that appeal to you, dear readers (or, at least, to some of you). My innate abilities and capabilities, and even many acquired ones, are, to a large extent, the product of factors out of my control, like my cognitive and psychological constitution.

That luck has paid off throughout my time at JPL. Working there has been a dream come true for me. It is so cool! I often have what amount to out-of-body experiences. When I am discussing a scientific or engineering point, or when I am explaining a conclusion or decision, sometimes a part of me pulls back and looks at the whole scene. Gosh! Listen to the cool things I get to say! Look at the cool things I get to do! Look at the cool things I know and understand! Imagine the cool spacecraft I'm working with and the cool world it is orbiting! I am still that starry-eyed kid, yet somehow, through luck and coincidence, I am doing the kind of things I love and once could only have dreamed of.

Dawn took this picture on July 6 from an altitude of 72 miles (116 kilometers). This ridge is in the center of Urvara Crater. We saw a different section of the ridge, west of this scene (photographed on the previous orbital revolution), in the previous Dawn Journal. (We provided some additional context for this image then as well.) This scene is 5.3 miles (8.6 kilometers) across. Many large craters have a peak in the center. Urvara is more unusual in having a ridge. Note the patterns of bright material that apparently flowed downhill. Full image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn will continue to be exciting to the very end, performing new and valuable observations as it skims incredibly low over the dwarf planet on every orbital revolution. The spacecraft has almost always either been collecting new data or, thanks to the amazing ion propulsion, flying on a blue beam of xenon ions to somewhere else to gain a new perspective, see new sights and make more discoveries. Whether in orbit around Vesta or Ceres or traveling through the solar system between worlds, the mission was rarely anything like routine.

I love working on Dawn (although it was not my first space love). You won't be surprised that I think it is really cool. I could not be happier with its successes. I am not sad it is ending. I am thrilled beyond belief that it achieved so much!

I was very saddened in graduate school when my grandfather died. When I said something about it in my lab to a scientist from Shanghai I was working with, he asked how old my grandfather was. When I said he was 85, the wiser gentleman's smile lit up and he said, "Oh, you should be happy." And immediately I was! Of course I should be happy -- my grandfather had lived a long (and happy) life.

And so has Dawn. It has overcome problems not even imagined when we were designing and building it. It not only exceeded all of its original goals, but it has accomplished ambitious objectives not even conceived of until after it had experienced what could have been mission-ending failures. It has carried me, and uncounted others (including, I hope, you), on a truly amazing and exciting deep-space adventure with spectacular discoveries. Dawn is an extraordinary success by any measure.

It did not come easily. Dawn has consumed a tremendous amount of my life energy, many times at the expense of other desires and interests. (Perhaps ironically, it even comes at the expense of my many other deep interests in space exploration and in science, such as cosmology and particle physics, interests shared by my cats Quark and Lepton. Also, writing these Dawn Journals and doing my other outreach activities take up a very large fraction of what would otherwise be my personal time. As a result, I always write these in haste, and I'm never satisfied with them. That applies to this one as well. But I must rush ahead.) The challenges and the demands have been enormous, sometimes feeling insurmountable. That would not have been my preference, of course, yet it makes the endeavor's successful outcome that much more gratifying.

At the same time I have felt all the pressure, I have long been so overjoyed with the nature of the mission, I will miss it. There is nothing quite like controlling a spacecraft well over a thousand times farther than the Moon, farther even than the Sun. Silly, trite, perhaps even mawkish though it may seem, when spacecraft I have been responsible for have passed on the far side of the Sun, I have taken those opportunities to use that blinding signpost to experience some of the awe of the missions. I block the Sun with my hand and contemplate the significance, both to this particular big, starry-eyed kid and to humankind, of such an alignment. I -- we -- have a spacecraft on the far side of the Sun!

Dawn was climbing and sailing north after reaching its lowest point above Urvara Crater when it flew 25 miles (41 kilometers) over this bright crater on July 17. The crater is about 1,100 feet (330 meters) across. Full image and captionImage credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Every day I feel exhilarated knowing that, as my car's license plate frame proclaims, my other vehicle is in the main asteroid belt. It won't be the same when that vehicle is no longer operating.

But I will always have the memories, the thrills, the deep and powerful personal gratification. And I have good reason to believe they will persist, just as some prior space experiences still fill me with gratitude, pride, excitement and pure joy. (I also hope to have many more cool out-of-body experiences.)

And long after I'm gone and forgotten, Dawn’s successes will still be important. Its place in the annals of space exploration will be secure: a wealth of marvelous scientific discoveries, the first spacecraft to orbit an object in the asteroid belt, the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet (indeed, the first spacecraft to visit the first dwarf planet that was discovered), the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet, the first spacecraft to orbit any two extraterrestrial destinations, and more.

Dawn took this cool picture of Urvara Crater's north wall on July 29 from an altitude of 28 miles (45 kilometers). Note the trails of boulders that tumbled down the wall, including some trails near the lower right that cross each other. At the end of many of the trails, you can see the boulder that left its imprint for Dawn (and you) to see. It appears some boulders are still lodged on the wall, waiting for their triggers so they can create their own trails and come to rest on the crater floor. This scene is 2.7 miles (4.3 kilometers) across. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

For now, Dawn is continuing to operate beautifully (and you can read about it in subsequent Dawn Journals). The end of the mission, when it comes, will be bittersweet for me, a time to reflect and rejoice at how fantastically well it has gone, and a time to grieve that it is no more. I will have many powerful and conflicting feelings. Like Walt Whitman, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Thanks to Dawn, we now have Vesta and we now have Ceres. Soon, very soon, Dawn will be only a memory (save for those who visit Ceres and find it still in orbit) but the worlds it revealed will forever be a part of our intellectual universe, and the capabilities to explore the solar system that it advanced and devised will be applied to exciting new missions. And the experience of being intimately involved in this grand adventure will remain with me for as long as I am able to see the night sky and marvel at the mysteries of the universe that captivated me even as a starry-eyed child.

Dawn is 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.46 AU (322 million miles, or 518 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,275 times as far as the Moon and 3.42 times as far as the Sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 58 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
10:00 pm PDT August 22, 2018


  • Marc Rayman

Vinalia Faculae on Ceres

A fantastic story of adventure, exploration and discovery is reaching its denouement. In the final phase of its long and productive deep-space mission, Dawn is operating flawlessly in orbit around dwarf planet Ceres.

As described in the previous Dawn Journal, every 27 hours the spacecraft swoops as low as about 22 miles (35 kilometers) above the ground, taking stunning pictures and making other unique, valuable measurements with its suite of sophisticated sensors. It then soars up to 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) over the alien world before diving down again.

While it is too soon to reach clear conclusions from the wealth of high-resolution data, some of the questions already raised are noteworthy: Are the new pictures totally awesome or are they insane? Are they incredible or are they unbelievable? Are they amazing or are they spectacular? It may take years to resolve such questions. The mission will end long before then, indeed very soon. In this Dawn Journal and the next one (which will be posted in about three Cerean days), we will preview the end.

When Dawn left Earth in 2007, it was outfitted with four reaction wheels, devices that were considered indispensable for controlling its orientation on its long expedition in deep space. Despite the failures of reaction wheels in 2010, 2012 and 2017, the team has accomplished an extremely successful mission, yielding riches at Vesta and at Ceres far beyond what had been anticipated when the interplanetary journey began. But now the rapidly dwindling supply of hydrazine propellant the robot uses in place of the reaction wheels is nearly exhausted.

With no friction to stabilize it, the large ship, with electricity-generating solar arrays stretching 65 feet (19.7 meters) wingtip-to-wingtip, holds its orientation in space by firing hydrazine propellant from the small jets of its reaction control system. The orientation should not be confused with the position. In the zero-gravity of spaceflight, they are quite independent. Unlike an aircraft, a spacecraft's position and the direction it travels are largely unrelated to its orientation. The probe's position is dictated by the principles of orbital motion, whether in orbit around the Sun, Vesta or (now) Ceres, and the ion propulsion system is used to change its trajectory. We are concerned here about orientation.

Dawn photographed this scene along Occator Crater's eastern wall from an altitude of 30 miles (48 kilometers) on June 9. Sunlight is coming from near the top of the picture, so the many boulders visible here are well lit at the top and dark at the bottom. Craters are the opposite. The entire scene is 2.9 miles (4.6 kilometers) wide. We have seen many other sites in Occator Crater, most recently in JuneFull image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn can hold its orientation quite stable, but it still lazily oscillates a little bit in pitch, roll and yaw. When the spacecraft points its main antenna to Earth, for example, spending many hours radioing its findings to the Deep Space Network (DSN) as it travels around Ceres, it rotates back and forth, but the angular motion is both tiny and slow. The ship turns about a thousand times slower than the hour hand on a clock. The clock hand continues its steady motion, going all the way around, rotating through a full circle in 12 hours. Dawn needs to keep its antenna pointed at Earth, however. If Dawn were at the center of the clock and Earth were at the 12, it wouldn't let the antenna point any farther away than the hour hand gets from the 12 in about a minute. The tiny angle is only about a tenth of the way from the 12 to the adjacent ticks (both on the left and on the right) that mark one second for the second hand. When Dawn's orientation approaches the maximum allowed angular deviation, the main computer instructs a jet to puff out a little hydrazine to reverse the motion.

When the spacecraft follows its elliptical orbit down to a low altitude, only three times higher than you are when you fly on a commercial jet, it needs to expel hydrazine to keep aiming its camera and spectrometers down as it rushes over the ground. If this isn't clear, try pointing your finger at an object and then circling around it. You are constantly changing the direction you're pointing. For Dawn to do that, especially in its elliptical orbit, requires hydrazine. (If you think Dawn could simply start rotating with hydrazine and then just point without using more, there are some subtleties here we will not describe. It really does require extensive hydrazine.)

Whether pointing at the landscape beneath it or at Earth, it might seem that Dawn could remain perfectly steady, but there are always tiny forces acting on it that would compromise its pointing. One is caused by the difference between Ceres' gravitational pull on the two ends of the solar arrays that occurs when the wings are not perfectly level. (We described this gravity gradient torque when Dawn was orbiting Vesta.) Also, sunlight reflecting in different ways from different components (some with polished, mirror-like surfaces, others with matte finishes) can exert a very small torque. Dawn uses hydrazine to counter these and other slight disturbances in its orientation.

As we have discussed extensively, very soon, the hydrazine will be depleted. Most likely between the middle of September and the middle of October (although possibly earlier or later), the computer will tell a reaction control jet to emit a small burst of hydrazine, as it has myriad times before in the mission, but the jet will not be able to do so. There won't be any usable hydrazine left. It will be like opening the end of a completely deflated balloon. No gas will escape. There will be no action, so there will be no reaction. Dawn's very slow angular motion will not be reversed but rather will continue, and the orientation will slowly move out of the tight bounds the ship normally maintains.

Dawn was 36 miles (58 kilometers) high on July 6 when it observed this exotic landscape within Vinalia Faculae. The scene is 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) across. The camera exposure was optimized for the bright salt deposits. The strange, nearly square structure here is visible in the composite of Vinalia Faculae above. This picture is rotated to put the incoming sunlight near the top, making it easier to interpret the scenery. So, for example, the dark structure extending to the upper left is evidently a canyon, not a ridge. Note the intriguing bright squiggle near the top, which makes it look as if there was some kind of flow. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The computer will quickly recognize that the intended effect was not achieved. It will send more signals to the jet to fire, but the result will be no different. On a mission often operating out of radio contact with Earth and always very, very far away, help can never be immediate (after all, radio signals travel at the universal limit of the speed of light), so the robot is programmed to deal with problems on its own. There are several possibilities for what actions Dawn will take, depending on details we will not delve into, but a likely one is to try switching from the primary reaction control jets to the backup reaction control jets. Of course, that won't fix the problem, because the jets will not be at fault. In fact, with no hydrazine available, none of its attempts to correct the problem will succeed.

When Dawn experiences problems it can't resolve on its own, it invokes one of its safe modes, standard responses the craft uses when it encounters conditions its programming and logic cannot accommodate. (We have described the safe modes a number of times before, with perhaps the most exciting time being here.) In this case, the safe mode it will chose will go through many steps to reconfigure the spacecraft and prepare to wait for help from humans on a faraway planet (or anyone else who happens to lend assistance).

One of the first steps will be to temporarily power off the radio transmitter, one of the biggest consumers of electrical power on the ship. Until Dawn can make all of the necessary changes, including turning to point the solar panels at the Sun, it will not want to devote precious energy to unnecessary systems. Electrical power is vital. Without it, the spacecraft will be completely inoperative, just as your car, computer, smartphone or lights do nothing at all when they are deprived of power.

Dawn will try to do all its work using only the energy stored in its battery (which it keeps charged, using excess power from the solar arrays). It knows that later, once the arrays are in sunlight, it will have plenty of power, but in the meantime, it needs to be parsimonious. The computer, heaters, motors to rotate the solar arrays, and some other devices are essential to getting into safe mode. The radio is needed only after the spacecraft has completed other steps.

The spacecraft will not complete those other steps. One of them is to turn to point at the Sun, ensuring that the large solar arrays are fully illuminated. But without hydrazine, it will have no means to accomplish the necessary turn.

Flying 35 miles (57 kilometers) high, Dawn photographed this scene northeast of Cerealia Facula in Occator Crater on July 5. The picture covers an area 3.3 miles (5.4 kilometers) wide. As other pictures here, it is rotated so sunlight comes from the top. (The prominent fracture actually points northeast.) Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

So, Dawn will not be able to achieve the planned orientation with the solar arrays generating electrical power. The computer will stubbornly refuse to turn on the radio, instead continuing to try to turn so the Sun will light up the arrays and infuse the robot with its electrical lifeblood.

Dawn will continue to try as long as it has power, whether flowing from partially lit solar arrays or from the battery. All the while, the spacecraft will continue to rotate at the same leisurely speed it did when it had hydrazine. But instead of gently oscillating back and forth, it will simply keep going in the same direction, like a clock's hour hand slowed down to measure months instead of hours.

This picture displays the complex distribution of bright and dark material and the rugged terrain in the northeastern part of Cerealia Facula. The scene is 3.3 miles (5.3 kilometers) across. Dawn took this photo on July 5 at an altitude of 34 miles (55 kilometers). (Sunlight comes from the top.) Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Some of the time, the solar arrays will face away from the Sun and the battery will drain. Some of the time the solar arrays will point at (or near) the Sun just by luck. But Dawn doesn't rely on luck. Until it has a stable orientation with the arrays reliably on the Sun, the computer will insist that power not be devoted to the radio. First things first: first achieve a condition that can be safe for days, weeks, or even months, and then radio Earth for help. The programming did not anticipate being completely unable to control orientation.

Engineers have analyzed what will happen and observed many examples of it in the spacecraft simulator at JPL. Eventually, the computer may make some other attempts. But Dawn's struggle will be brief, lasting only hours before the battery is exhausted. The seasoned adventurer will sink into unconsciousness. At some later time, as its stately rotation brings the solar arrays back into the light, it may well begin to revive, but the cycle will repeat. The newly awakened Dawn will try to point at the Sun and hold that position, taking advantage of the power from the fortuitously illuminated solar arrays. But soon its continuing rotation will point the arrays into the dark of space again. It might seem that half the time the arrays would receive light and so it should be able to operate at half power, but it doesn't work that way. At Dawn's distance from the Sun, a little bit of that faint light on the solar arrays is not sufficient.

After an extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition, more than a decade of interplanetary travels, unveiling two of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system, performing unique and complex maneuvers, encountering and overcoming a host of unanticipated problems, Dawn will be on the losing end of a battle with the cold, hard reality of operation in deep space. Its mission will be over.

Southeast of Cerealia Facula, Dawn spotted this landscape with many hills and mounds. (Again, with the Sun at the top, features that are brighter on top than on the bottom rise up above the ground.) Dawn took this picture on July 5 at an altitude of 32 miles (51 kilometers). The scene is 3.0 miles (4.9 kilometers) wide. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The spacecraft will be well over a million times farther from Earth than the International Space Station. How will we know when it has run out of hydrazine if its radio is off? (The reaction control system is expected to operate normally as long as there is usable hydrazine, so there will be no prior indication that its exhaustion is imminent.) 

Even as it goes about trying to fix or recover from problems, the computer issues some brief status reports. (They often are more informative than the dialog boxes that pop up on your computer, and Dawn never asks you to click on something to proceed.) If the loss of hydrazine happens to occur while Dawn is communicating with Earth, one of those concise reports may be received before the computer turns off the transmitter. The short message would be like a farewell tweet that Dawn is ending its mission.

Most of the time, however, the probe does not point its main antenna at Earth. When it zips down to low altitude, it aims its sensors at the ground, so the antenna is pointed in an arbitrary direction. Dawn transmits a very broad radio signal through one of its auxiliary antennas so scientists and engineers can follow its motion very precisely. (We have explained before that this allows them to determine the interior structure of the dwarf planet.) That radio connection is too weak for anything else, so Dawn won't be able to tweet its news. If the last of the hydrazine is spent when Dawn's orbital motion is being tracked, the radio signal will simply disappear.

In its elliptical orbit, Dawn spends far less time traveling fast at low altitude than it does traveling slowly at high altitude, much as the girl on a swing we encountered in April. And when it is high up, we generally do not have radio contact at all. So it is more likely that the hydrazine will be depleted when Dawn is out of touch than when the DSN is recording its radio transmissions, through either the main antenna or an auxiliary antenna. Then the next time one of the antennas of the DSN aims at Dawn's location in the sky, it will strain to hear the faint radio whisper of the faraway probe, but all will be silent.

Dawn photographed this fractured terrain just inside the southern wall of Occator Crater. (The upper right corner is south and so is closest to the crater wall.) The spacecraft was 22 miles (35 kilometers) high when it took this picture on July 5. The scene is 2.1 miles (3.3 kilometers) across. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn controllers and the DSN will work together to be sure the inability to detect the spacecraft isn't some other problem, perhaps in mission control or in the tremendously complex DSN. Over the course of a few days, they will use more than one antenna and will take a few other measures. After all, there could be other reasons for a temporary loss of signal, and engineers will work through the possibilities. But given Dawn's resilience and sophistication, if it remains uncommunicative during that time, the conclusion will not be in doubt. Even without a tweet, it will be clear Dawn has run out of hydrazine and is at the end of its operational life.

After conducting a systematic investigation, when the Dawn project is confident of the situation, we will announce the result. In the next Dawn Journal, we will consider a more personal side of this story.

But what of Dawn's long-term fate? Remember, its orientation in space is largely independent of its orbital motion. The spacecraft's inability to point where it wants, to power its systems, and to communicate with its human handlers will have virtually no effect on where it goes.

Dawn doesn't need propulsion to stay in orbit around Ceres, just as the Moon doesn't need it to stay in orbit around Earth and Earth doesn't need it to stay in orbit around the Sun. And that's important. We do not want Dawn to come into contact any time soon with the dwarf planet it orbits.

Dawn photographed this scene on July 1 from an altitude of 179 miles (288 kilometers). At the top is a section of the wall of Sekhet Crater (named for an Egyptian goddess). You can see Sekhet at 66°S, 255°E on this map. The main crater visible here is about five miles (eight kilometers) wide. Note the boulders on the crater floor and outside the crater. Although Occator Crater was the region of greatest interest in this phase of the mission, Dawn has taken pictures of everything along its low flight path as it streaked north and descended to Occator (note its location at 20°N, 239°E on the same map). We described and depicted the nature of this orbital motion in the June Dawn Journal. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres is subject to planetary protection, a set of standards designed to ensure the integrity of possible future "biological exploration" of the alien world. That terminology does not mean there is biology on Ceres but rather that that exotic world is of interest in the field of astrobiology. Ceres was once covered with an ocean and today harbors a vast inventory of water (mostly as ice but perhaps with some liquid still present underground). It also has a supply of heat (retained even now, long after radioactive elements decayed and warmed the interior), organics and a rich variety of other chemicals. With all these ingredients, Ceres could experience some of the chemistry related to the development of life. Scientists do not want to contaminate that pristine environment with Dawn's terrestrial materials.

Not all solar system bodies need such protection. The Moon, Mercury and Venus, for example, have not been of interest for searches for life or for prebiotic chemistry. For that reason, spacecraft are allowed to land or crash on those worlds because there is no expectation of subsequent biological exploration. Also exempt from such rules are tiny asteroids, including two that are being explored this year, Ryugu and Bennu. They are entirely unlike giant Ceres. They are often mistakenly thought of as being similar because of the oversimplified notion that all are asteroids. We will provide an illustration of the dramatic difference in the next Dawn Journal.

The planetary protection rules for Ceres specify that Dawn not be allowed to contact it for at least 20 years. There is a common misconception that the time is needed to allow the spacecraft to be sterilized by the radiation, vacuum and temperature extremes of spaceflight. That's not the case. Many terrestrial microbes are impressively hardy, and there is good reason to believe that some that have taken an unplanned interplanetary cruise with Dawn would remain viable after much longer than 20 years.

The requirement for 20 years is intended to allow enough time for a follow-up mission, if deemed of sufficiently high priority given the many goals NASA has for exploring the solar system. Two decades should be long enough to mount a mission that builds on Dawn's many discoveries. We would not want such a hypothetical mission to be misled by finding microorganisms or nonbiological organic chemicals that were deposited by our spacecraft. As we'll see below, the deadline for another mission to get there before Dawn contaminates Ceres is likely to be significantly more relaxed even than that.

Dawn observed this ridge at the center of Urvara Crater on July 5 from an altitude of 75 miles (121 kilometers). We have seen all or part of Urvara many times before, most recently here, with this ridge clearly visible near the top center of that picture. As described in the picture above, the explorer took this picture on its descent north to Occator. We also explained in June that as the low point of the orbit shifts south, the focus of observations shifts from Occator to Urvara. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Earlier this year, when the team was figuring out how to fly to and operate in an orbit like the one Dawn is in now, much of their work was guided by this planetary protection requirement. We did not want to enter an orbit that would not meet the 20-year lifetime. We could not take the chance of going to an orbit with a shorter lifetime and plan for subsequent maneuvers to increase the duration. We were not sufficiently confident Dawn would have enough hydrazine to remain operable long enough to make its observations and still be able to change its orbit.

The team studied elliptical orbits with different minimum altitudes. Trajectory experts investigated the long-term behavior of each orbit as Ceres' irregular gravity field tugs on the spacecraft revolution after revolution, year after year. Like Earth, Ceres has some regions of higher density and some of lower density. As Dawn orbits over these different regions, they gradually distort the orbit. The analyses also accounted for the slight pressure of sunlight, which not only can rotate the spacecraft but also can push it in its orbit. An orbit with a minimum of 22 miles (35 kilometers) was the lowest that the team was confident would comply with planetary protection, and that's why Dawn is now in just such an orbit.

And after 20 years? Calculations show that even over 50 years, the orbital perturbations are overwhelmingly likely to be too small to cause Dawn to crash. In fact, there is less than a one percent chance of the orbit being distorted enough that Dawn would hit Ceres. In other words, our analysis gives us more than 99 percent confidence that even in half a century, Dawn will still be revolving around Ceres, the largest object between Mars and Jupiter, the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system and the first dwarf planet discovered (129 years before Pluto).

Leaving the remarkable craft in orbit around the distant colossus will be a fitting and honorable conclusion to its historic journey of discovery at Vesta and Ceres. Dawn's scientific legacy is secure, having revealed myriad fascinating and exciting insights into two quite dissimilar and mysterious alien worlds. This interplanetary ambassador from Earth will be an inert celestial monument to the power of human ingenuity, creativity, and curiosity, a lasting reminder that our passion for bold adventures and our noble aspirations to know the cosmos can take us very, very far beyond the confines of our humble home.

Dawn is 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.46 AU (321 million miles, or 517 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,270 times as far as the Moon and 3.42 times as far as the Sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 58 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
7:00 pm PDT August 21, 2018


  • Marc Rayman