At Ceres, of course, only two reaction wheels were operable, and Dawn was not designed to use fewer than three. But the day after the first reaction wheel problem occurred in 2010, engineers at JPL and Orbital ATK (back then, it was Orbital Sciences Corporation) began preparing for another failure. They started working on a method to control the orientation with two wheels plus hydrazine, a combination known as
. That would consume less hydrazine than using no wheels, although more than if three wheels were available. Following an unusually rapid development of such complex software for a probe in deep space, the team installed the new capability in Dawn’s central computer in hybrid control April 2011, shortly before Vesta operations began. That software performed flawlessly from December 2015 until the third reaction wheel failed last month.
The team determined in 2010 that the benefits of operating the spacecraft with only one wheel would not justify the investment of effort required. So now that three have failed, the last operable wheel is turned off, and it will never be used again. But as we saw above, the team has a great deal of experience flying Dawn with no wheels at all. They had piloted the ship in that configuration through the solar system and around Ceres for a total of four years, so they were well prepared to continue.
Dawn took this navigational photograph on May 16 from an altitude of 26,400 miles (42,600 kilometers). We’ll get to the real importance in a moment, but let’s cover the technical details first. This picture was taken 20 minutes after the one
above. The perspective is nearly identical, but Ceres has rotated so scenery has shifted slightly. (As we discussed with the movie above, 20 minutes on Ceres would be the equivalent of 53 minutes of Earth rotation.) In the time between these two pictures, Dawn progressed 24 miles (39 kilometers) in its slow, high orbit. (Some readers may have noted that the altitude at the beginning of this caption differs by 100 kilometers from the altitude given for the previous navigation image. This writer rounds the values to the nearest multiple of 100.) With their accurate maps constructed from Dawn’s earlier observations, navigators analyzed the precise location of landmarks in each picture to help establish where Dawn was at the moment the photo was taken. They then plotted Dawn’s successive positions to refine their knowledge of its orbit. For technical reasons, the orbit is more difficult to measure at this high altitude than closer to Ceres. Without these pictures, navigators would know the ship’s position to an accuracy of about three miles (five kilometers). The pictures allowed them to reduce that uncertainty to about 700 feet (200 meters). Perhaps more important than the navigational application is that these May 16 pictures show Dawn’s final view of Ceres in its one-year extended mission. This image serves as a reminder that the nature of a distant, alien world can be elusive, like a small, thin crescent, with most of the secrets veiled by an impenetrable cloak of darkness. But since early 2015, Dawn has scrutinized this dwarf planet and produced an exquisitely detailed, intimate portrait of what was for two centuries little more than an indistinct dab of light on the inky black canvas of space. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
With the third wheel failure, we can be grateful that each wheel provided as much benefit as it did. The wheels allowed Dawn to conduct extremely valuable work while using the hydrazine very sparingly. Now that we are finished with the wheels, the members of the flight team are not despondent, dear reader, and you shouldn’t be either. Dawn can continue to operate
until the hydrazine is depleted or some unforeseen problem arises. But risks are the nature of venturing into the forbidding depths of space. For now, Dawn has life left in it. Next month we will describe the plans for using the remaining hydrazine.
Less than a week after the third reaction wheel failed, Dawn performed perfectly in collecting all of the planned pictures (using both the
primary camera and the backup camera) as well as visible spectra and infrared spectra at opposition. Reaching that special position on the line from the sun to Ceres required two months of intricate maneuvers. By coincidence, another special alignment occurs very soon. This one is called conjunction.
Earth and Ceres follow independent orbits around the sun. Earth carries with it the moon and thousands of artificial satellites. The dwarf planet has one companion, a native of Earth, a temporary resident of Vesta and a resident of Ceres since
Because Earth is closer to the sun than Ceres, it is bound by a stronger gravitational leash and
so circles faster. Early next month, their separate orbital paths will bring them to opposite sides of the sun. From the terrestrial perspective (shared by some readers, perhaps even including you), the sun and Ceres will appear to be at the same location in the sky. This is conjunction.
Dawn’s location in the solar system is shown on June 5, 2017, when the spacecraft and Ceres will be on the opposite side of the sun from Earth. We have charted Dawn’s progress on this figure before, most recently in
November. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Communicating with distant interplanetary spacecraft is not easy. (Surprise!) It is even more difficult near conjunction, when the radio signals between Earth and the spacecraft travel close to the sun on their way. The solar environment is fierce indeed, and the stormy plasma that surrounds the star interferes with the radio waves, like hot, turbulent air making light shimmer. Communications will be unreliable from May 31 to June 12. Even though some signals may get through, mission controllers can’t count on hearing from the spacecraft or contacting it. But they are confident the stalwart ship will manage on its own, executing the instructions transmitted to it beforehand and handling any problems until Earth and Ceres are better positioned for engineers to provide any help. Occasionally Deep Space Network antennas, pointing near the sun, will listen amid the roaring solar noise for Dawn’s faint whisper, but receiving any crackling messages will simply be a bonus. In essence, conjunction means radio silence.
Dawn’s proximity to the sun presents a convenient opportunity for terrestrial observers to locate Dawn in the sky. On June 5-6, it will be less than one solar diameter from the sun.
Ceres does not orbit the sun in the same plane as Earth, so it does not always go directly behind the disk of the sun. The spacecraft and dwarf planet will be a little bit south of the sun.
If you hold three fingers (preferably your own) together at arm’s length and block the sun any time from June 1 to 10 (and you are encouraged to do so), you will also cover Dawn. From June 3 to June 8, you can cover the dazzling celestial signpost and Dawn at the same time with your thumb.
Dawn is very big for an interplanetary spacecraft (or for an otherworldly dragonfly, for that matter), with a wingspan of nearly 65 feet (19.7 meters). However, it will be 346 million miles (557 million kilometers) away during conjunction, more than 3.7 times as far as the sun.
This is an artist’s concept of Dawn. The two wings of solar cells make the spacecraft very large. Nevertheless, when at conjunction, it will be so far away that it will appear comparable to the width of a human hair at a distance of more than 1,000 miles (2,000 kilometers). In other words, the ship is much too far for your eyes to see. It would be better to use your mind’s eye. Even the most powerful telescopes could not detect the spacecraft. For that matter, observing Ceres with a telescope would be difficult at this range. Sunlight makes it impossible, but even if we ignore the overwhelming glare, the dwarf planet would appear about as large as a soccer ball seen from 81 miles (130 kilometers.) It’s a good thing we have a spacecraft there to examine it in such great detail. Image credit:
Those who lack the requisite superhuman (or even supertelescopic) vision to discern the fantastically remote spacecraft through the blinding light of the sun needn’t worry. We can overcome the limitation of our visual acuity with our passion for exploring the cosmos and our burning desire for bold adventures far from home. For this alignment is a fitting occasion to reflect once again upon missions deep into space.
There, in that direction, is Earth’s faraway emissary to alien worlds. You can point right to where it is. Dawn has traveled more than 3.8 billion miles (6.1 billion kilometers) on a remarkable odyssey. It is the product of creatures fortunate enough to be able to combine their powerful curiosity about the workings of the cosmos with their impressive abilities to wonder, investigate, and ultimately understand. While its builders remain in the vicinity of the planet upon which they evolved, their robotic ambassador now is passing on the far side of the extraordinarily distant sun.
This is the same sun that is more than 100 times the diameter of Earth and a third of a million times its mass. This is the same sun that has been the unchallenged master of our solar system for more than 4.5 billion years. This is the same sun that has shone down on Earth all that time and has been the ultimate source of much of the heat, light and other energy upon which residents of the planet have depended. This is the same sun that has so influenced human expression in art, literature, mythology and religion for uncounted millennia. This is the same sun that has motivated impressive scientific studies for centuries. This is the same sun that is our signpost in the Milky Way galaxy. Daring and noble missions like Dawn transport all of us well beyond it.
Dawn is 31,600 miles (50,800 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.72 AU (346 million miles, or 557 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,555 times as far as the moon and 3.68 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and two minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
5:00 p.m. PDT May 24, 2017
TAGS: CERES, DAWN
Marc Rayman, Dawn Mission Director and Chief Engineer
Marc Rayman is the director and chief engineer for NASA's Dawn mission, which was launched in 2007 on a mission to orbit the two most massive bodies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to characterize the conditions and processes that shaped our solar system.