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).
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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