As NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbits and explores its second target, dwarf planet Ceres, to provide scientists with a window into the dawn of the solar system, mission director and chief engineer Marc Rayman shares a monthly update on the mission's progress. Learn more about the Dawn mission on the JPL Missions database.
Nine years ago today, Dawn set sail on an epic journey of discovery and adventure.
The intrepid explorer has sailed the cosmic seas and collected treasures that far exceeded anything anticipated or even hoped for. It began its voyage at Earth with a fiery ascent atop a Delta rocket. After escaping from its home planet’s gravitational grasp, it flew through the solar system perched on a pillar of blue-green xenon ions that enabled the probe to accomplish a mission that would have been impossible with conventional propulsion. In 2009, with its sights set on more distant lands, Dawn swept past Mars, taking some of the planet’s orbital energy for its own. By its fourth anniversary, Dawn was conducting an extensive orbital investigation of protoplanet Vesta, the second most massive resident of the main asteroid belt. Dawn found it to be quite unlike typical asteroids. Rather than a big chunk of rock, Vesta is like a small planet, and scientists recognize it as being more closely related to the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) than to the much smaller asteroids. Vesta’s nearer brethren are the blue and white planet where Dawn began its mission nine years ago and the red one it flew by 17 months later. By its fifth anniversary of leaving Earth, the interplanetary spaceship was on its way to yet another distant, alien world. Under the careful guidance of its human colleagues, Dawn completed its 2.5-year journey from Vesta to Ceres last year. Now a perpetual companion of the first dwarf discovered, the veteran space traveler will spend all future anniversaries in orbit around Ceres, even after its operational lifetime has concluded.
By February of this year, the spacecraft had exceeded all of its original objectives established by NASA. Doing so involved orbiting Vesta for 14 months and, at that time, Ceres for almost a year. On June 30, Dawn’s prime mission concluded, and on July 1, its "extended mission" began.
One year ago today, the ship was in its third Ceres mapping orbit, scrutinizing the exotic landscapes 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) beneath it. Less than four weeks later, it started powering its way down through the uncharted depths of Ceres gravitational field to undertake the final planned observations of its long mission.
When ion thrusting concluded on Dec. 13, 2015, Dawn was orbiting closer to Ceres than the International Space Station is to Earth. From its vantage point only 240 miles (385 kilometers) high, the probe used its suite of sophisticated sensors to develop a richly detailed portrait of the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system. Dawn’s reason for venturing to its fourth mapping orbit was to collect about 35 days of neutron spectra, 35 days of gamma-ray spectra and 20 days of gravity measurements. Given the complexity of operating in the low, tight orbit, mission planners expected it could take about three months to acquire these precious data and transmit them to Earth. Operations turned out to be essentially flawless, and by the time Dawn left that orbit on Sept. 2, it had accumulated 183 days of neutron spectra, 183 days of gamma-ray spectra and 165 days of gravity measurements. In addition, the spacecraft amassed a sensational bonus of 38,000 high resolution photos (including stereo and color) as well as more than 11 million infrared spectra and 12 million spectra in visible wavelengths. The original plan was not to take any pictures or visible or infrared spectra at the lowest altitude.
For such an overachiever, it’s fitting that now, on its ninth anniversary, the spacecraft is engaged in activities entirely unimagined on its eighth. With the critical loss of two of the four reaction wheels used to orient and stabilize the ship in space, the flight team (and your correspondent) considered it unlikely Dawn would survive long enough to celebrate a ninth anniversary. And everyone was confident that whether it was operating or not, it would still be in the fourth mapping orbit. There was a clear intent never to go anywhere else. But as we explained last month, with the extraordinary wealth of information Dawn gleaned, the team has been developing plans for new and previously unforeseen work at higher altitudes. Next month, we will detail the first set of new observations from an orbital perch of about 920 miles (1,480 kilometers).
For now, Dawn is using its ion engine #2 to gradually raise its orbit. We have seen how the spacecraft’s uniquely capable propulsion system leads to intriguing spiral trajectories. Right now, on the ninth anniversary of the last moment Dawn’s rocket stood motionless at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 17B, Dawn is 660 miles (1,060 kilometers) above Ceres. With its signature combination of exceptional gentleness and exceptional efficiency, the ion engine will propel Dawn to an altitude 20 miles (35 kilometers) higher by the end of the day today. (In contrast, by the end of the day it launched nine years ago, Dawn had gained about 175,000 miles, or 280,000 kilometers, in altitude. The Delta rocket provided a much stronger thrust at much lower efficiency. We will discuss this further below.)
You can follow Dawn’s ascent to its new orbit by flying right behind it as it loops around Ceres or by checking the frequent mission status reports.
Nine years after launch, as Dawn maneuvers in orbit around a distant dwarf planet in order to conduct new observations, it is convenient to look back over its long trek through deep space. For those who would like to track the probe’s progress in the same terms used on past anniversaries, we present here the ninth annual summary, reusing text from previous years with updates where appropriate. Readers who wish to reflect upon Dawn’s ambitious journey may find it helpful to compare this material with the Dawn Journals from its first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth anniversaries.
In its nine years of interplanetary travels, the spacecraft has thrust for a total of 2,044 days (5.6 years), or 62 percent of the time (and 0.000000041 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 890 pounds (404 kilograms) of its supply of xenon propellant, which was 937 pounds (425 kilograms) on Sept. 27, 2007. The spacecraft has used 68 of the 71 gallons (256 of the 270 liters) of xenon it carried when it rode its rocket from Earth into space.
The thrusting since then has achieved the equivalent of accelerating the probe by 24,800 mph (39,900 kilometers per hour). As previous logs have described (see here for one of the more extensive discussions), because of the principles of motion for orbital flight, whether around the sun or any other gravitating body, Dawn is not actually traveling this much faster than when it launched. But the effective change in speed remains a useful measure of the effect of any spacecraft’s propulsive work. 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 97 percent of the change in speed that the entire Delta rocket provided.
Since launch, our readers who have remained on or near Earth have completed nine revolutions around the sun, covering 56.6 AU (5.3 billion miles, or 8.5 billion kilometers). Orbiting farther from the sun, and thus moving at a more leisurely pace, Dawn has traveled 38.6 AU (3.6 billion miles, or 5.8 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 nine years since Dawn began its voyage, Vesta has traveled only 36.6 AU (3.4 billion miles, or 5.5 billion kilometers), and the even more sedate Ceres has gone 34.0 AU (3.2 billion miles, or 5.1 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 nine years. You will see that as the strength of the sun’s gravitational grip weakens at greater distance, the corresponding orbital speed decreases.)
Another way to investigate the progress of the mission is to chart how Dawn’s orbit around the sun has changed. This discussion will culminate with a few more numbers than we usually include, and readers who prefer not to indulge may skip this material, leaving that much more for the grateful Numerivores. (If you prefer not to skip it, click here.) In order to make the table below comprehensible (and to fulfill our commitment of environmental responsibility), we recycle some more text here on the nature of orbits.
Orbits are ellipses (like flattened circles, or ovals in which the ends are of equal size). So as members of the solar system family (including Earth, Vesta, Ceres and Dawn) follow their paths around the sun, they sometimes move closer and sometimes move farther from it.
In addition to orbits being characterized by shape, or equivalently by the amount of flattening (that is, the deviation from being a perfect circle), and by size, they may be described in part by how they are oriented in space. Using the bias of terrestrial astronomers, the plane of Earth’s orbit around the sun (known as the ecliptic) is a good reference. Other planets and interplanetary spacecraft may travel in orbits that are tipped at some angle to that. The angle between the ecliptic and the plane of another body’s orbit around the sun is the inclination of that orbit. Vesta and Ceres do not orbit the sun in the same plane that Earth does, and Dawn must match its orbit to that of its targets. (The major planets orbit closer to the ecliptic, and part of the arduousness of Dawn’s journey has been changing the inclination of its orbit, an energetically expensive task.)
Now we can see how Dawn has done by considering the size and shape (together expressed by the minimum and maximum distances from the sun) and inclination of its orbit on each of its anniversaries. (Experts readily recognize that there is more to describing an orbit than these parameters. Our policy remains that we link to the experts’ websites when their readership extends to one more elliptical galaxy than ours does.)
The table below shows what the orbit would have been if the spacecraft had terminated ion thrusting on its anniversaries; the orbits of its destinations, Vesta and Ceres, are included for comparison. Of course, when Dawn was on the launch pad on Sept. 27, 2007, its orbit around the sun was exactly Earth’s orbit. After launch, it was in its own solar orbit.
from the Sun (AU)
from the Sun (AU)
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2007 (before launch)||0.98||1.02||0.0°|
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2007 (after launch)||1.00||1.62||0.6°|
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2008||1.21||1.68||1.4°|
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2009||1.42||1.87||6.2°|
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2010||1.89||2.13||6.8°|
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2011||2.15||2.57||7.1°|
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2012||2.17||2.57||7.3°|
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2013||2.44||2.98||8.7°|
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2014||2.46||3.02||9.8°|
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2015||2.56||2.98||10.6°|
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2016||2.56||2.98||10.6°|
For readers who are not overwhelmed by the number of numbers, investing the effort to study the table may help to demonstrate how Dawn patiently transformed its orbit during the course of its mission. Note that five years ago, the spacecraft’s path around the sun was exactly the same as Vesta’s. Achieving that perfect match was, of course, the objective of the long flight that started in the same solar orbit as Earth, and that is how Dawn managed to slip into orbit around Vesta. While simply flying by it would have been far easier, matching orbits with Vesta required the exceptional capability of the ion propulsion system. Without that technology, NASA’s Discovery Program would not have been able to afford a mission to explore the massive protoplanet in such detail. But now, Dawn has gone even beyond that. Having discovered so many of Vesta’s secrets, the stalwart adventurer left it behind in 2012. No other spacecraft has ever escaped from orbit around one distant solar system object to travel to and orbit still another extraterrestrial destination. Dawn devoted another 2.5 years to reshaping and tilting its orbit even more so that now it is identical to Ceres’. Once again, that was essential to the intricate celestial choreography in March 2015, when the behemoth tenderly took hold of the spacecraft. They have been performing an elegant pas de deux ever since.
Its ion propulsion system has allowed Dawn to do even more than orbit two distant and fascinating bodies. At each one, the spacecraft has changed its orbits extensively, optimizing its views to conduct detailed studies, something it would not have been able to do with conventional propulsion.
Dawn passed a coincidental pair of milestones in its orbital mission at Ceres last week. The dwarf planet reached out to take Earth’s emissary into a gentle but permanent gravitational embrace on March 6, 2015. Sept. 23, 2016, was 1,500 Cerean days later. (Ceres turns on its axis in 9 hours, 4 minutes, considerably faster than Earth, although not all that different from the giant planet Jupiter, which takes 9 hours, 56 minutes). Interestingly, on Sept. 22, Dawn completed its 1,500th orbital revolution around Ceres.
Given the equality between the number of orbits and the number of Cerean days, you may be tempted to conclude that Dawn orbits at the same rate that Ceres rotates. Please resist this temptation! Dawn’s early orbits took weeks to complete, and as the spacecraft maneuvered to lower altitudes, eventually they took days and then hours. In its lowest altitude, the spacecraft circled Ceres in only 5.4 hours. (For a reminder of the details of the orbits, see this table and this diagram depicting preliminary orbit sizes.) So, it truly is a coincidence that the average has worked out so that Dawn has revolved as many times as Ceres has rotated. And now that Dawn is raising its altitude and thus increasing the time required to complete an orbit, such a coincidence will not occur again. Ceres is very stubborn and will keep rotating at the same rate. Dawn, much nimbler and more flexible, is currently in a 13-hour orbit. By the time it completes ion thrusting next week, the orbit period will be almost 19 hours.
Now in the 10th year of its deep-space expedition, Dawn is not satisfied simply to rest on its laurels. The explorer (along with its support team on distant Earth) is committed to remaining as prolific and profitable at Ceres as it was during earlier years of its extraordinary and innovative mission of discovery. The largest body between Mars and Jupiter is a relict from the dawn of the solar system, a strange and fascinating world of rock, ice and salt that likely has been geologically active for more than 4.5 billion years. Ceres was first glimpsed from Earth more than 200 years ago but held her secrets close until Earth finally answered her cosmic invitation. Now, after so very long, Ceres is whispering those wondrous secrets to her permanent companion. Dawn is listening carefully!
Dawn is 660 miles (1,060 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 1.99 AU (185 million miles, or 297 million kilometers) from Earth, or 760 times as far as the moon and 1.98 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 33 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:34 a.m. PDT September 27, 2016
Dawn is actively continuing to add details to the intimate portrait it is creating of Ceres, a distant and exotic world.
The dwarf planet has been revealing many secrets to the companion she has held in her tender but firm gravitational embrace since early last year.
Following the conclusion of Dawn's ambitious 8.8-year prime mission on June 30, the spacecraft has been gathering a wealth of data with all sensors in its extended mission as it orbits closer to Ceres than the International Space Station is to Earth. When the adventurer descended to its current orbital altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers) in December 2015, mission controllers had planned for only a few months of operations. Because of the prior failure of two reaction wheels, used for orienting the craft in space, Dawn had to rely on the creativity of the team to stretch the dwindling supply of hydrazine to keep the ship operating. No one on the team expected their efforts to be as productive as they turned out to be, allowing the mission to continue much longer. Now Dawn has completed more than eight months of virtually flawless activities at this altitude, over 1,100 orbital revolutions, returning far, far more data than ever anticipated.
We have recounted in recent months how Dawn has overachieved, and its extended mission has sustained that favorable trend. As just one example, since Ceres first showed up as a small, fuzzy blob in Dawn's camera in December 2014, the spacecraft has taken more than 51,000 photos of Ceres (and more than 51,000 more photos of Ceres than discoverer Giuseppe Piazzi took). More than 37,000 of those have been taken in this fourth and lowest orbit, providing exquisite resolution.
Dawn has achieved so much that it has been given new, special assignments not even envisioned at the beginning of this year. For example, scientists recently adjusted settings for the gamma ray spectrometer to search for the signature of atoms that were not part of the original program of inventorying Ceres' elements.
The reason for flying so low was to measure nuclear radiation and the variations in the gravity field. In fact, Dawn was not designed to map the vast territory with its other instruments from this tight orbit. All the pictures, infrared spectra and visible spectra have been bonuses of a successful mission. We have seen before how difficult it was to capture specific geological features on Ceres with the camera. It is even more challenging with the visible and infrared mapping spectrometers because they share a much narrower view than the camera. Nevertheless, with great effort, the team managed in the extended mission to obtain beautiful spectra of the famous bright region in Occator Crater, known from earlier spectra to be highly reflective deposits of salt left behind when briny ice covering the ground inside the crater sublimated. Dawn has been successful in tracking down other important sites with its visible and infrared spectrometers as well.
After photographing more than 99.9 percent of the dwarf planet at high resolution, the spacecraft took a great many more pictures at different angles, making stereo views to improve the topographical map it developed in the third mapping orbit. In addition, Dawn used the filters in its camera to take new, sharper color photos of some of the most geologically interesting locations.
The explorer has acquired other pictures of special scientific interest as well. Let's delve into one kind. We have described Dawn's findings about the location of the north and south poles and the tilt of Ceres' rotational axis. As we saw, Earth's axis is tilted more, so our planet experiences greater variation in the position of the sun during one heliocentric revolution (one year). On Ceres, the sun never moves far from the equator, which means it is always far from the poles. From the perspective of the high northern or southern latitudes, the sun is always near the horizon and is never high in the sky. As a result, the floors of some craters near the poles are in shadow continuously throughout the Cerean year (which lasts 4.6 terrestrial years). Without even brief warming rays of the distant sun, these locations must be especially cold.
Thanks to Dawn, we know ice has been on the ground in some places in the past and is there even now in Oxo Crater. (We also know there is a tremendous amount of ice underground.) When ice on the surface is heated enough by the sun, it sublimates, the water molecules receiving enough energy to escape from the solid, becoming a gas. Some of them leave with so much energy, they break free of Ceres' gravitational pull and go far into space. But many of the molecules follow a familiar parabolic arc, landing elsewhere on the dwarf planet, just as a ball thrown on Earth will come back down. If the landing spot is similarly warm enough for ice to sublimate (as most places on Ceres are), eventually the molecule will be lofted again, having a chance of landing in a new, random location. But molecules that happen to fall in the deep cold of a crater in persistent shadow will be trapped. As a result, these "cold traps" may harbor ice that has accumulated over thousands of years (or even longer).
Dawn has peered into craters that might be cold traps. Of course, sunlight doesn't illuminate them directly. But faint reflections from other parts of the crater may be just barely bright enough that with long exposures and special care in analyzing the pictures, new insights might come to light.
Dawn could continue operating in this orbit, but it has already squeezed nearly as much out of its suite of sophisticated sensors as it can, and it soon would reach the point of diminishing returns. In addition, its lifetime here is now very limited. Although the hydrazine has lasted longer than expected, the gauge on the tank is dropping relentlessly as the robotic ship uses the propellant to counter the strong gravitational torque at this low altitude. Even if the two functioning reaction wheels continue to run correctly in hybrid control, the hydrazine would be exhausted early next year, and the mission would come to an immediate end. And given the premature death of the other two wheels, Dawn might not last even that long. If one more wheel fails, Dawn's remaining lifetime would be cut in half. At this point, how can we get the most out of Earth's deep-space ambassador?
We have explained before that Dawn will never go closer to Ceres. There are several reasons. The rate at which hydrazine is consumed depends quite strongly on the altitude, so if the probe ventured lower, its lifetime would be significantly shorter. (Similarly, at higher altitude, it uses less hydrazine and so its lifetime would be longer.) Ceres has water (albeit mostly frozen, although perhaps some as liquid), energy (both from the distant sun and from radioactive elements incorporated when Ceres formed more than 4.5 billion years ago), and some of the other important ingredients for the development of life. We want to protect this astrobiologically interesting environment from the spacecraft's terrestrial contamination, so we cannot risk going low enough that it might crash, even long after the mission concludes. (And a controlled landing is not possible.) Also, at lower altitudes Dawn would orbit so fast that pictures and other measurements would be smeared, reducing the benefit of being closer. There are other reasons as well, but the bottom line is that this orbit is where Dawn draws its bottom line.
Ever creative, the team has found new ways to increase the mission's scientific productivity. Once again, the strategy involves changes never anticipated and that may be contrary to what your intuition would suggest. For more than two years, your correspondent has been emphasizing that this would be Dawn's final orbit. Now, on Sept. 2, Dawn will begin flying to a higher altitude.
The prospect of raising the orbit also raises several natural questions about what will happen in the coming months, including how, why and what kind of cake will be served at the team's celebration on Sept. 27 of the ninth anniversary of Dawn's launch. This month, let's look at how, and as the team refines its plans for the other key questions, we will discuss the answers in future Dawn Journals.
To gain altitude, Dawn will take advantage of its remarkable ion propulsion system. Ion propulsion has enabled many bold missions from Star Trek to Star Wars to NASA's unique expedition to orbit Vesta and Ceres, which would have been not simply difficult but impossible with conventional propulsion. And like the spaceships that in science fiction fly wherever they want to go, now Dawn will use its xenon ions to maneuver to an orbit it would not otherwise be able to reach. (Despite the similarity, there are some ways in which Dawn differs from the fictional ships: our craft uncompromisingly obeys all the laws of physics and carries relatively few systems designed to destroy other ships in battle.)
To climb higher, Dawn will essentially reverse the spiral route it took down to its current orbit, much as it did when it ascended from Vesta. (There are some interesting technical differences in the nature of this trajectory from all of the other spirals. The design incorporates clever new ideas from Dawn's celestial navigators. But to the casual interplanetary observer, it will appear the same.) As with all of Dawn's activities, you can follow its progress upward with the mission status updates.
After five weeks of ion thrusting, looping higher and higher, the spacecraft will stop at about 910 miles (1,460 kilometers). Readers with eidetic memories (or who reread past Dawn Journals) may note that that is very close to the altitude of the third mapping orbit. However, the orientation of the orbit will be different. The spaceship will still circle in a polar orbit. It will travel over the north pole, then fly south above the face of Ceres lit by the sun. After it passes over the south pole, it will streak to the north over terrain hidden in the dark of night. But the plane of this orbit will be rotated from that of the third mapping orbit. The angle to the sun will be larger, so Dawn will pass over a different part of the sunlit hemisphere, gaining new perspectives on the extraterrestrial landscapes.
At its current low altitude, Dawn is now completing a truly extraordinary phase of its exploration of Ceres. But there is still much more to come, with new scientific investigations, new discoveries and new adventures at higher altitudes. Now that we have seen a little of the how, be sure to look for upcoming Dawn Journals to learn more about the why (and about the anniversary cake).
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.24 AU (208 million miles, or 335 million kilometers) from Earth, or 855 times as far as the moon and 2.22 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 37 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PDT August 31, 2016
Humankind dispatched Dawn on an extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition in 2007.
It visited Mars briefly in 2009 and spent 14 months orbiting protoplanet Vesta in 2011-2012, revealing fascinating details of that uncharted, alien world. After traveling for another two and a half years through the interplanetary void, the spacecraft arrived at Ceres in March 2015. It has now conducted an outstandingly successful exploration of the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system. Dawn greatly surpassed its objectives at both Vesta and Ceres, accomplishing well more than was envisioned when NASA decided to undertake this ambitious mission. Having realized its raison d'être, the official end of Dawn's prime mission was June 30.
Following the conclusion of the prime mission, the adventurer began its "extended mission" of performing more Ceres observations without missing a beat. We described in April some of what Dawn can do as it continues investigating many of the mysteries there. Dawn's extension allows for even better measurements with the gamma ray and neutron detector of the nuclear radiation emanating from Ceres. This is like taking a longer exposure of the very faint nuclear glow, yielding a brighter, sharper picture that reveals more about the atomic constituents down to about a yard (meter) underground. The spacecraft is taking more stereo photos, continuing to improve the topographical map it created from four times higher. Scientists also are taking advantage of this opportunity to study more geological features with the visible and infrared mapping spectrometers, providing important insight into Ceres' mineralogical inventory.
Dawn has already made extraordinary discoveries at Ceres, some of which we have described in recent months. But on a dwarf planet of 1.1 million square miles (2.8 million square kilometers), there is a great deal to see. That, after all, is the benefit of being in orbit, lingering long enough to make a richly detailed portrait of the exotic expanse. Indeed, Ceres has 36 percent of the land area of the contiguous United States, or the combined land areas of France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In such a vast territory, there are innumerable mysteries to unravel. And that is only the surface.
Dawn also is continuing its studies of the gravitational field to discover more about the interior structure of the largest body between Mars and Jupiter.
In the coming months we will discuss other intriguing activities and how Dawn will make measurements never even considered before. But for now, let's look at how this extension came about.
As readers of the Dawn Journals know (and as you will be reminded below), there has been very good reason in recent years to believe the spacecraft would not operate beyond the end of its prime mission. However, the veteran explorer is in very good health. It is one of Earth's most experienced and capable ambassadors to the cosmos, we want to squeeze as much out of this mission as we can. Ever resourceful, the Dawn team recognized in March 2016 that the probe had the capability to do yet more and decided to give NASA Headquarters a unique choice: remain at Ceres (as always expected) or go elsewhere.
It is worth pondering how extraordinary this is. Most spacecraft can only make minor adjustments to their trajectories, so at the end of their prime missions, they generally go wherever they were already headed. If a spacecraft is in orbit around some planetary body, it remains in orbit. If a spacecraft is not in orbit, having previously flown past one or more bodies that orbit the sun, its course is largely determined by the targeting for the last encounter. A planet's gravity may have redirected it, but otherwise its propulsion system has to do the work, and that usually can produce only a tiny change in direction. If a spacecraft is not already in orbit around a planetary body, it won't be able to enter orbit.
Dawn is different. With its uniquely capable ion propulsion system, Dawn is the only spacecraft ever to travel to a distant destination, orbit it, later break out of orbit, then travel to another faraway destination, and orbit it. And even while in orbit around Vesta and Ceres, Dawn maneuvered extensively, optimizing its orbits for its scientific investigations. And yet this remarkable ship can do still more. It has the capability to leave its second destination and continue its travels.
Dawn's brilliant and creative navigators analyzed possible missions to more than 68,000 known objects. That alone is a nice illustration of the powerful potential.
The project team very quickly narrowed the list to the most interesting body Dawn could reach after leaving Ceres, a large asteroid named Adeona. That mission offered the best alternative to further studies of the dwarf planet.
But how to decide between these two attractive possibilities? Some members of the Dawn team preferred continuing the exploration of Ceres and others preferred going to Adeona. Similarly, some people prefer cake and some prefer pie. (That's not a perfect example, because it's obvious cake is better, but you get the idea.)
NASA thoroughly evaluated the scientific potential and other aspects of the options. Part of this was an assessment by an independent group of esteemed scientists. The conclusion was that either would be valuable but that studying Ceres further was preferable.
From the perspective of your correspondent -- passionate about space exploration since the age of four, a professional scientist (as well as a scientist at heart), an engineer and a taxpayer -- this is a wonderful outcome. How could one want anything other than such a well-considered decision?
But how is it even possible that the team could have offered to NASA the option of visiting Adeona for the extended mission? We have emphasized for several years that Ceres would be Dawn's final home. If you had asked even as recently as early this year whether the spacecraft could leave Ceres (and many of you did), we would have responded that such a prospect was unrealistic and inconceivable (and we did). We have described in great detail how the failure of two of Dawn's four reaction wheels was so serious that it was only with heroic effort that the distant robot was able to complete its original assignments. We have explained repeatedly that the spacecraft will soon expend the last of its hydrazine propellant, then immediately lose the ability to point its solar arrays at the sun, its antenna at Earth, its scientific sensors at Ceres or its ion engine in the direction needed to fly elsewhere. Why the change now, and how could Dawn operate for a multiyear journey?
We have discussed in recent months how remarkably well the flight team has done in conserving hydrazine, significantly exceeding any reasonable expectations and thereby extending Dawn's functional lifetime. Moreover, mission controllers know that the probe consumes less hydrazine at higher altitudes. Contrary to many people's notions, the dwarf planet's gravity is appreciable, and operating so close to it requires a very high rate of hydrazine consumption. Dawn is circling only 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres, closer than the International Space Station is to Earth. But during the long deep-space journey to Adeona, Dawn would use the precious propellant much more sparingly. So despite the loss of the two reaction wheels, under the expert guidance of its terrestrial colleagues, the ship could set sail once again for a new and distant land beyond the horizon.
Isn't it incredibly cool that humankind has the capability to fire up the ion engine on a distant interplanetary spaceship and pilot it out of orbit around a dwarf planet to fly more than halfway around the sun on a bold expedition of 900 million miles (1.5 billion kilometers) to investigate a huge asteroid? (Hint: the answer is yes.)
Exciting as such a voyage might seem, it is gratifying that a thoughtful, rationale decision was made that yields an even better outcome. Rather than terminate the present mission after it has exceeded all of its original objectives, and rather than embark on that new mission, the best possible use of Dawn is to do what it is doing right now: extracting secrets from dwarf planet Ceres. And now we can look forward to more, as Dawn pursues new objectives. As the extended mission progresses, we will describe marvelous new findings from the rich trove of data Dawn is returning, and we will see how the team plans to take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn more about the nature of the solar system.
If you share in the passion for exploration, if you thrill to new discoveries and new knowledge or even if you just want to see how many more silly Dawn Journal greetings your correspondent can concoct, stay onboard as Dawn's adventure at Ceres continues.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.69 AU (250 million miles, or 403 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,090 times as far as the moon and 2.65 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 45 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PDT July 27, 2016
Dawn is continuing to record the extraordinary sights on dwarf planet Ceres. The experienced explorer is closer to the alien world than the International Space Station is to Earth.
Dawn has completed more than 1,000 orbital revolutions since entering into Ceres' gentle but firm gravitational grip in March 2015. The probe is healthy and performing its ambitious assignments impeccably. In the last few months, we have described how Dawn has greatly exceeded all of its original objectives at Ceres and the excellent progress it has been making in collecting bonus data. On schedule on May 25, the spacecraft completed the mapping campaign it began on April 11, in which it took photographs with the camera pointed to the left and forward as it circled Ceres. Now it is looking to the right and forward to get another stereo view.
In January we mentioned that, having already acquired far more measurements with the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer than anticipated, scientists were devoting further observations to infrared rather than visible. Now Dawn is operating both spectrometers again. Having seen much more of Ceres in the infrared from this low altitude than planned, mission controllers now can afford to allocate some of the spacecraft's data storage and interplanetary radio transmissions to visible spectra in exchange for limiting the infrared to a few select targets. In addition, a device in the infrared spectrometer that lowers the sensor's temperature to -307 degrees Fahrenheit (-188 degrees Celsius) is showing signs of age. (We saw here that the sensor can detect heat. So to avoid interference from its own heat, it needs to be cooled.) Its symptoms are not a surprise, given that the instrument has acquired far, far more data at Vesta and Ceres than it was designed for. It is continuing to function quite productively, but now its use is being curtailed.
One of the mission's objectives was to photograph 80 percent of Ceres' vast landscape with a resolution of 660 feet (200 meters) per pixel. Dawn has now photographed nearly the entirety (99.9 percent) with a resolution of 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel. The adventurer has shown us 25 percent more terrain than planned with 5.7 times the clarity. We can see detail 830 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope revealed.
What is the value of that much detail? The more detailed the portrait, the better understanding geologists can obtain. Imagine the difference (not only visually but also emotionally and socially) between seeing a person at the opposite end of a soccer field and seeing them from five inches (12 centimeters) away.
The pictures speak quite eloquently (and succinctly) for themselves, but let's take a look at one of the many uses of these sharp photographs: determining the age of geological features.
In December, we gave an approximate age of 80 million years for Occator Crater, site of the famous "bright spots" (or famously bright spots). It takes more than an experienced geological eye to estimate such an age.
Now don't forget that we are trying to ascertain the age, but we are going to get there on a long and winding path, mostly because it's an opportunity to touch on some fun and interesting topics.
To begin, we go back in time, not quite 80 million years, to the Apollo program. Astronauts returned from the moon with many treasures, including 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar material collected on six missions. In addition, three Soviet robotic Luna spacecraft came back with a total of 11 ounces (0.3 kilograms).
Earth's total inventory of lunar samples is larger. By comparing the chemical composition of that material with a great many meteorites, scientists have identified nearly 120 pounds (54 kilograms) of meteorites that were blasted from the moon by asteroid impacts and then landed on our planet.
Other meteorites are known to have originated on Mars. The principal method by which that connection was made was comparison of gasses trapped in the meteorites with the known constituents of the Martian atmosphere as measured by the two Viking spacecraft that landed there 40 years ago. Scientists thus have 276 pounds (125 kilograms) of Martian material.
Of course, unlike the Apollo and Luna samples, the lunar and Martian meteorites were selected for us by nature's randomness from arbitrary locations that are not easy to determine.
The moon and Mars are two of only three (extant) extraterrestrial bodies that are clearly established as the source of specific meteorites. The third is Vesta, the fascinating protoplanet Dawn explored in 2011-2012. That world is farther away even than Mars, and yet we have 3,090 pounds (1,402 kilograms) from Vesta, or more than 11 times as much as from the red planet and more than three times as much as from the moon. We reflected on these meteorites during our travel from Vesta to Ceres.
It is thanks to Dawn's detailed measurements of the composition of Vesta that scientists were able to clinch the connection with the meteorites that were under study in terrestrial laboratories. The impact of an asteroid perhaps 20 to 30 miles (30 to 50 kilometers) in diameter more than one billion years ago excavated Vesta's Rheasilvia Crater. It left behind a yawning basin more than 300 miles (500 kilometers) across, a mountain more than twice the height of Mt. Everest, and a network of about 90 canyons with dimensions rivaling those of the Grand Canyon. And it launched a tremendous amount of material into space. Some of it settled back onto Vesta, resurfacing much of the southern hemisphere, but some of it departed with so much energy that it escaped Vesta's gravitational hold. Some of the biggest pieces liberated by that tremendous impact are now visible as small asteroids known as vestoids. And some of the small pieces eventually made their way to the part of the solar system where many of our readers (perhaps including you) reside. After Earth's gravity took hold of any of those wandering interplanetary rocks and pulled them in, they became meteors upon entering the atmosphere, meteorites upon hitting the ground, and keys to studying the second largest object in the main asteroid belt upon entering laboratories. One esteemed scientist on the Dawn team opined that with Dawn's detailed data and our Vestan samples, Vesta joined the ranks of the moon and Mars as the only extraterrestrial bodies that have been geologically explored in a rigorous way.
With so many meteorites from Vesta, why have we not linked any to Ceres? Is it because the rocks didn't get blasted away in the first place, or they didn't make it to the vicinity of Earth or to the ground, or we have not recognized that they are in our collections? While there are some ideas, the answer is not clear. For that matter, although Vesta and Ceres are the two largest residents of the main asteroid belt, why have we not tied meteorites to any of the smaller but still sizable bodies there? We will return to this question in a future Dawn Journal, but for now, let's get back to the question of how Dawn's pictures help with measuring the ages of features on Ceres.
Scientists have measured the relative abundance of different atomic species in the Apollo and Luna samples from different locations. Elements with known radioactive decay rates serve as clocks, providing a record of how old a sample is. This process enabled scientists to pin down the ages of many craters on the moon, and from that, they developed a history of the rate at which craters of different sizes formed.
During some periods in the moon's history, it was pelted with more interplanetary debris, forming more craters, than at other times. This uneven history is a reflection of solar-system-wide events. For example, it seems that the giant planets of the outer solar system jockeyed for their orbital positions around the sun about four billion years ago. Their gravitational jostling over the course of about 300 million years may have sent a flurry of material into the inner solar system, where the moon recorded the bombardments.
The moon lives at one astronomical unit (1 AU, which is 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers) from the sun (because that's where Earth is). Scientists can extrapolate the cratering history the moon experienced to other locations in the solar system, so they can calculate what other bodies should have been subjected to. Ceres lives between 2.6 and 3.0 AU from the sun.
Scientists count the number and size of craters in an area of interest, like inside Occator Crater and on the blanket of ejected material surrounding it. (See the picture above.) With their mathematical description of how many impacts should have occurred over time, they can estimate how long the surface has been exposed and accumulating craters. Although the ages have not been computed yet, compare the third and fourth pictures presented in April for a clear illustration of areas that are of very different ages.
The method of determining the age involves many subtleties we did not touch on here, and there are many complicating factors that limit the accuracy. But the dating results are improved substantially by including smaller craters in the count.
It is readily apparent in pictures of Ceres, Vesta, the moon, and elsewhere that small craters are more prevalent than large ones. There has simply been more small stuff than large stuff flying around in the solar system and crashing into surfaces to make craters. There are more bits like sand grains than pebbles, more pebbles than boulders, more small boulders than big boulders, etc.
Extending Dawn's photographic documentation of the Cerean landscapes to finer resolution provides the means to develop a better census of the population of craters, yielding a better measure of the age.
Dawn's bonus observations thus give us not only a sharper view of the dwarf planet beneath it today but also a more accurate view of the mysterious world's past. As this extraordinary journey through space and time continues, next month, we will look to the future.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.42 AU (318 million miles, or 512 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,400 times as far as the moon and 3.38 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 57 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
3:30 p.m. PDT May 31, 2016
Dear Glutdawnous Readers,
The distant dwarf planet that Dawn is circling is full of mystery and yet growing ever more familiar.
Ceres, which only last year was hardly more than a fuzzy blob against the stars, is now a richly detailed world, and our portrait grows more elaborate every day. Having greatly surpassed all of its original objectives, the reliable explorer is gathering still more data from its unique vantage point. Everyone who hungers for new knowledge about the cosmos or for bold adventures far from Earth can share in the sumptuous feast Dawn has been serving.
One of the major objectives of the mission was to photograph 80 percent of Ceres' vast landscape with a resolution of 660 feet (200 meters) per pixel. That would provide 150 times the clarity of the powerful Hubble Space Telescope. Dawn has now photographed 99.8 percent with a resolution of 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel.
This example of Dawn's extraordinary productivity may appear to be the limit of what it could achieve. After all, the spaceship is orbiting at an altitude of only 240 miles (385 kilometers), closer to the ground than the International Space Station is to Earth, and it will never go lower for more pictures. But it is already doing more.
Since April 11, instead of photographing the scenery directly beneath it, Dawn has been aiming its camera to the left and forward as it orbits and Ceres rotates. By May 25, it will have mapped most of the globe from that angle. Then it will start all over once more, looking instead to the right and forward from May 27 through July 10. The different perspectives on the terrain make stereo views, which scientists can combine to bring out the full three dimensionality of the alien world. Dawn already accomplished this in its third mapping orbit from four times its current altitude, but now that it is seeing the sights from so much lower, the new topographical map will be even more accurate.
Dawn is also earning extra credit on its assignment to measure the energy of gamma rays and neutrons. We have discussed before how the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) can reveal the atomic composition down to about a yard (meter) underground, and last month we saw initial findings about the distribution of hydrogen. However, Ceres' nuclear glow is very faint. Scientists already have three times as much GRaND data from this low altitude as they had required, and both spectrometers in the instrument will continue to collect data. In effect, Dawn is achieving a longer exposure, making its nuclear picture of Ceres brighter and sharper.
In December we explained how using the radio signal to track the probe's movements allows scientists to chart the gravity field and thereby learn about the interior of Ceres, revealing regions of higher and lower density. Once again, Dawn performed even better than expected and achieved the mission's planned accuracy in the third mapping orbit. Because the strength of the dwarf planet's gravitational tug depends on the distance, even finer measurements of how it varies from location to location are possible in this final orbit. Thanks to the continued smooth operation of the mission, scientists now have a gravitational map fully twice as accurate as they had anticipated. With additional measurements, they may be able to squeeze out a little more detail, perhaps improving it by another 20 percent before reaching the method's limit.
Dawn has dramatically overachieved in acquiring spectra at both visible and infrared wavelengths. We have previously delved into how these measurements reveal the minerals on the ground and what some of the interesting discoveries are. Having already acquired more than seven times as many visible spectra and 21 times as many infrared spectra as originally called for, the spacecraft is adding to its riches with additional measurements. We saw in January that VIR has such a narrow view that it will never see all of Ceres from this close, so it is programmed to observe features that have caught scientists' interest based on the broad coverage from higher altitudes.
Dawn's remarkable success at Ceres was not a foregone conclusion. Of course, the flight team has confronted the familiar challenges people encounter every day in the normal routine of piloting an ion-propelled spaceship on a multibillion-mile (multibillion-kilometer) interplanetary journey to orbit and explore two uncharted worlds. But the mission was further complicated by the loss of two of the spacecraft's four reaction wheels, as we have recounted before. (In full disclosure, the devices aren’t actually lost. We know precisely where they are. But given that one stopped functioning in 2010 and the other in 2012, they might as well be elsewhere in the universe; they don’t do Dawn any good.) Without three of these units to control its orientation in space, the robot has relied on its limited supply of hydrazine, which was not intended to serve this function. But the mission's careful stewardship of the precious propellant has continued to exceed even the optimistic predictions, allowing Dawn good prospects for carrying on its fruitful work. In an upcoming Dawn Journal, we will discuss how the last of the dwindling supply of hydrazine may be used for further discoveries.
In the meantime, Dawn is continuing its intensive campaign to reveal the dwarf planet's secrets, and as it does so, it is passing several milestones. The adventurer has now been held in Ceres' tender but firm gravitational embrace longer than it was in orbit around Vesta. (Dawn is the only spacecraft ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, and its mission would have been impossible without ion propulsion.) The spacecraft provided us with about 31,000 pictures of Vesta, and it has now acquired the same number of Ceres.
For an interplanetary traveler, terrestrial days have little meaning. They are merely a memory of how long a faraway planet takes to turn on its axis. Dawn left that planet long ago, and as one of Earth's ambassadors to the cosmos, it is an inhabitant of deep space. But for those who keep track of its progress yet are still tied to Earth, on May 3 the journey will be pi thousand days long. (And for our nerdier friends and selves, it will be shortly after 6:47 p.m. PDT.)
By any measure, Dawn has already accomplished an extraordinary mission, and there is more to look forward to as its ambitious expedition continues.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.73 AU (346 million miles, or 558 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,455 times as far as the moon and 3.70 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and two minutes to make the round trip.
Dear Resplendawnt Readers,
One year after taking up its new residence in the solar system, Dawn is continuing to witness extraordinary sights on dwarf planet Ceres. The indefatigable explorer is carrying out its intensive campaign of exploration from a tight orbit, circling its gravitational master at an altitude of only 240 miles (385 kilometers).
Even as we marvel at intriguing pictures and other discoveries, scientists are still in the early stages of putting together the pieces of the big puzzle of how (and where) Ceres formed, what its subsequent history has been, what geological processes are still occurring on this alien world and what all that reveals about the solar system.
For many readers who have not visited Ceres on their own, Occator Crater is the most mysterious and captivating feature. (To resolve the mystery of how to pronounce it, listen to the animation below.) As Dawn peered ahead at its destination in the beginning of 2015, the interplanetary traveler observed what appeared to be a bright spot, a shining beacon guiding the way for a ship sailing on the celestial seas. With its mesmerizing glow, the uncharted world beckoned, and Dawn answered the cosmic invitation by venturing in for a closer look, entering into Ceres' gravitational embrace. The latest pictures are one thousand times sharper than those early views. What was not so long ago a single bright spot has now come into focus as a complex distribution of reflective material in a 57-mile (92-kilometer) crater.
Scientists are still working on refining their understanding of this striking region. As we described in December, it seems that following the powerful impact that excavated Occator Crater, underground briny water reached the surface. The detailed photographs show many fractures cutting across the bright areas, and perhaps they provided a conduit. Water, whether as liquid or ice, would not last long there in the cold vacuum, eventually subliming. When the water molecules disperse, either escaping from Ceres into space or falling back to settle elsewhere, the dissolved salts are left behind. This reflective residue covers the ground, making the spellbinding and beautiful display Dawn now reveals.
While the crater is estimated to be a geological youngster at 80 million years old, that is an extremely long time for the material to remain so reflective. Exposed for so long to cosmic radiation and pelting from the rain of debris from space, it should have darkened. Scientists don't know (yet) what physical process are responsible, but perhaps it was replenished long after the crater itself formed, with more water, carrying dissolved salts, finding its way to the surface. As their analyses of the photos and spectra continue, scientists will gain a clearer picture and be able to answer this and other questions.
These latest Occator pictures did not come easily. Orbiting so close to Ceres, the adventurer’s camera captures only a small scene at a time, and it is challenging to cover the entirety of the expansive terrain. (Perhaps it comes as a surprise to those who have not read at least a few of the 123 Dawn Journals that precede this one that operating a spacecraft closer to a faraway dwarf planet than the International Space Station is to Earth is not as easy as, say, thinking about it.) But the patience and persistence in photographing the exotic landscapes have paid off handsomely.
We now have high resolution pictures of essentially all of Ceres save the small area around the south pole cloaked in the deep dark of a long winter night. Seasons last longer on Ceres than on Earth, and Dawn may not operate there long enough for the sun to rise at the south pole. By the beginning of southern hemisphere spring in November 2016, Dawn's mission to explore the first dwarf planet discovered may have come to its end.
In addition to photographing Ceres, Dawn conducts many other scientific observations, as we described in December and January. Among the probe's objectives at Ceres is to provide information for scientists to understand how much water is there, where it is, what form it is in and what role it plays in the geology.
We saw that extensive measurements of the faint nuclear radiation can help identify the atomic constituents. While the analysis of the data is complicated, and much more needs to be done, a picture is beginning to emerge from Dawn's neutron spectrometer (part of the gamma ray and neutron detector, GRaND). These subatomic particles are emitted from the nuclei of atoms buried within about a yard (meter) of the surface. Some manage to penetrate the material above them and fly into space, and the helpful ones then meet their fate upon hitting GRaND in orbit above. (Most others, however, will continue to fly through interplanetary space, decaying into a trio of other subatomic particles in less than an hour.) Before it escapes from the ground, a neutron's energy (and, equivalently, its speed) is strongly affected by any encounters with the nuclei of hydrogen atoms (although other atomic interactions can change the energy too). Therefore, the neutron energies can indicate to scientists the abundance of hydrogen. Among the most common forms in which hydrogen is found is water (composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom), which can occur as ice or tied up in hydrated minerals.
GRaND shows Ceres is rich in hydrogen. Moreover, it detects more neutrons in an important energy range near the equator than near the poles, likely indicating there is more hydrogen, and hence more (frozen) water, in the ground at the high latitudes. Although Ceres is farther from the sun than Earth, and you would not consider it balmy there, it still receives some warmth. Just as at Earth, the sun's heating is less effective closer to the poles than at low latitudes, so this distribution of ice in the ground may reflect the temperature differences. Where it is warmer, ice close to the surface would have sublimed more quickly, thus depleting the inventory compared to the cooler ground far to the north or south.
Dawn spends most of its time measuring neutrons (and gamma rays), so it is providing a great deal of new data. And as scientists conduct additional analyses, they will learn more about the ice and other materials beneath the surface.
Another spectrometer is providing more tantalizing clues about the composition of Ceres, which is seen to vary widely. As the dwarf planet is not simply a huge rock but is a geologically active world, it is no surprise that it is not homogeneous. We discussed in December that the infrared mapping spectrometer had shown that minerals known as phyllosilicates are common on Ceres. Further studies of the data show evidence for the presence of two types: ammoniated phyllosilicates (described in December) and magnesium phyllosilicates. Scientists also find evidence of compounds known as carbonates, minerals that contain carbon and oxygen. There is also a dark substance in the mix that has not been identified yet.
And in one place (so far) on Ceres, this spectrometer has directly observed water, not below the surface but on the ground. The infrared signature shows up in a small crater named Oxo. (For the pronunciation, listen to the animation below.) As with the neutron spectra, it is too soon to know whether the water is in the form of ice or is chemically bound up in minerals.
At six miles (10 kilometers) in diameter, Oxo is small in comparison to the largest craters on Ceres, which are more than 25 times wider. (While geologists consider it a small crater, you might not agree if it formed in your backyard. Also note that when we showed Oxo Crater before, the diameter was slightly different. The crater's size has not changed since then, but as we receive sharper pictures, our measurements of feature sizes do change.) Dawn's first orbital destination, the fascinating protoplanet Vesta, is smaller than Ceres and yet has two craters far broader than the largest on Ceres. Based on studies of craters observed throughout the solar system, scientists have established methods of calculating the number and sizes of craters that could be formed on planetary surfaces. Those techniques show that Ceres is deficient in large craters. That is, more should have formed than appear in Dawn's pictures. Many other bodies (including Vesta and the moon) seem to preserve their craters for much longer, so this may be a clue about internal geological processes on Ceres that gradually erase the large craters.
Scientists are still in the initial stages of digesting and absorbing the tremendous wealth of data Dawn has been sending to Earth. The benefit of lingering in orbit (enabled by the remarkable ion propulsion system), rather than being limited to a brief glimpse during a fast flyby, is that the explorer can undertake much more thorough studies, and Dawn is continuing to make new measurements.
As recently as one year ago, controllers (and this writer) had great concern about the spacecraft's longevity given the loss of two reaction wheels, which are used for controlling the ship's orientation. And in 2014, when the flight team worked out the intricate instructions Dawn would follow in this fourth and final mapping orbit, they planned for three months of operation. That was deemed to be more than enough, because Dawn only needed half that time to accomplish the necessary measurements. Experienced spacecraft controllers recognize that there are myriad ways beautiful plans could go awry, so they planned for more time in order to ensure that the objectives would be met even if anomalies occurred. They also were keenly aware that the mission could very well conclude after three months of low altitude operations, with Dawn using up the last of its hydrazine. But their efforts since then to conserve hydrazine proved very effective. In addition, the two remaining wheels have been operating well since they were powered on in December, further reducing the consumption of the precious propellant.
As it turned out, operations have been virtually flawless in this orbit, and the first three months yielded a tremendous bounty, even including some new measurements that had not been part of the original plans. And because the entire mission at Ceres has gone so well, Dawn has not expended as much hydrazine as anticipated.
Dawn is now performing measurements that were not envisioned long in advance but rather developed only in the past two months, when it was apparent that the expedition could continue. And since March 19, Dawn has been following a new strategy to use even less hydrazine. Instead of pointing its sensors straight down at the scenery passing beneath it as the spacecraft orbits and Ceres rotates, the probe looks a little to the left. The angle is only five degrees (equal to the angle the minute hand of a clock moves in only 50 seconds, or less than the interval between adjacent minute tick marks), but that is enough to decrease the use of hydrazine and thus extend the spacecraft's lifetime. (We won't delve into the reason here. But for fellow nerds, it has to do with the alignment of the axes of the operable reaction wheels with the plane in which Dawn rotates to keep its instruments pointed at Ceres and its solar arrays pointed at the sun. The hydrazine saving depends on the wheels' ability to store angular momentum and applies only in hybrid control, not in pure hydrazine control. Have fun figuring out the details. We did!)
The angle is small enough now that the pictures will not look substantially different, but they will provide data that will help determine the topography. (Measurements of gravity and the neutron, gamma ray and infrared spectra are insensitive to this angle.) Dawn took pictures at a variety of angles during the third mapping orbit at Ceres (and in two of the mapping orbits at Vesta, HAMO1 and HAMO2) in order to get stereo views for topography. That worked exceedingly well, and photos from this lower altitude will allow an even finer determination of the three dimensional character of the landscape in selected regions. Beginning on April 11, Dawn will look at a new angle to gain still another perspective. That will actually increase the rate of hydrazine expenditure, but the savings now help make that more affordable. Besides, this is a mission of exploration and discovery, not a mission of hydrazine conservation. We save hydrazine when we can in order to spend it when we need it. Dawn's charge is to use the hydrazine to accomplish important scientific objectives and to pursue bold, exciting goals that lift our spirits and fuel our passion for knowledge and adventure. And that is exactly what it is has done and what it will continue to do.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.90 AU (362 million miles, or 583 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,505 times as far as the moon and 3.90 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and five minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PDT March 31, 2016
Dear Indawnbitably Successful Readers,
A story of intense curiosity about the cosmos, passionate perseverance and bold ingenuity, a story more than two centuries in the making, has reached an extraordinary point. It begins with the discovery of dwarf planet Ceres in 1801 (129 years before its sibling Pluto; each was designated a planet for a time). Protoplanet Vesta was discovered in 1807. Following 200 years of telescopic observations, Dawn's daring mission was to explore these two uncharted worlds, the largest, most massive residents of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. And now, as of February 2016, the spacecraft has accomplished all of the objectives that NASA defined for it in 2004, even before construction began (and before the very first Dawn Journal, nearly a decade ago).More than eight years after leaving its erstwhile planetary home behind for an ambitious deep space adventure, Dawn has now collected all of the data originally planned. Indeed, even prior to this third intercalary day of its expedition, the probe had already actually sent back a great deal more data for all investigations, significantly exceeding not only the original goals but also new ones added after the ship had set sail on the interplanetary seas. While scientists have a great deal of work still ahead to translate the bounty of data into knowledge, which is the greatest joy of science, the spacecraft can continue its work with the satisfaction that it has fulfilled its purpose and achieved an outstandingly successful mission.
Dawn is the only spacecraft ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, which would have been impossible without its advanced ion propulsion system. It is the only spacecraft ever to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt. It is also the only spacecraft ever to orbit massive bodies (apart from the sun and Earth) that had not been visited first by a flyby spacecraft to characterize the gravity and other properties. (By the way, Ceres is one of eight solar system bodies that operating spacecraft are orbiting now. The others are the sun, Venus, Earth, the moon, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Mars and Saturn.)
Now in its fourth and final mapping orbit at Ceres, at an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers), Dawn is closer to the exotic terrain than the International Space Station is to Earth. The benefit of being in orbit is that the probe can linger rather than take only a brief look during a fast flyby. Even though Dawn has met its full list of objectives at Ceres, it continues to return new, valuable pictures and other measurements to provide even greater insight into this relict from the dawn of the solar system. For example, it is acquiring more nuclear spectra with its gamma ray and neutron detector, sharpening its picture of some atomic elements on Ceres. In addition, taking advantage of its unique vantage point, Dawn is collecting more infrared spectra of locations that are of special interest and soon will also take color photos and stereo photos (as it did in the third mapping orbit) of selected areas.
Dawn has completed more than 600 revolutions since taking up residence one year ago. The first few orbits took several weeks each, but as the spacecraft descended and Ceres' gravitational embrace grew more firm, its orbital velocity increased and the orbital period decreased. Now circling in less than five and a half hours, Dawn has made 370 orbits since reaching this altitude on Dec. 7.
The pace of observations here is higher than in the previous mapping orbits, where the orbital periods were longer. The spacecraft flies over the landscape faster now, and being closer to the ground, its instruments discern much more detail but capture a smaller area. Mission controllers have developed intricate plans for observing Ceres, but those plans depend on the spacecraft being at the right place at the right time. As we will see below, however, sometimes it may not be.
Suppose, for example, the intent is to observe a particular feature, perhaps the bright center of Occator crater, the lonely, towering mountain Ahuna Mons, the fractures in Dantu crater or artificial structures that definitively prove the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, utterly transforming our understanding of the cosmos and shattering our naive perspectives on life in the universe. Trajectory analysis indicates when Dawn will fly over the designated location, and engineers will program it to take pictures or infrared spectra at that time. They will also include some margin, so they may program it to start 10 minutes before and end 10 minutes after. But they can't afford to put in too much margin. Data storage on the spacecraft is limited, so other geological features could not be observed. Also, transmitting data to Earth requires pointing the main antenna at that distant planet instead of pointing sensors at Ceres, so it would be unwise to collect much more than is necessary.
Even if devoting additional time (and data) to trying to observe the desired place were feasible, it wouldn't necessarily solve the problem. Dawn travels in a polar orbit, which is the only way to ensure that it passes over all latitudes. While Dawn soars from north to south over the sunlit hemisphere making its observations, the dwarf planet itself rotates on its axis, so the ground moves from east to west. If the spacecraft arrives at the planned orbital location a little early or a little late, the feature of interest may not even be beneath it but rather could be too far east or west, out of view of the instruments. In that case, increasing the duration of the observation period doesn't help.
All of that is why, as we saw last month, it requires more pictures to fully map Ceres than you might expect. Many pictures may have to be taken in order to fill in gaps, and quite a few of the pictures overlap with others. Nevertheless, Dawn has done an excellent job. The spacecraft has photographed 99.6 percent of the dwarf planet from this low altitude. (If you aren't regularly visiting the image gallery, you are missing out on some truly out-of-this-world scenes.)
The flight team devises very detailed plans that tell the spacecraft what to do every second, including where to point and what data to collect with each sensor. When the observation plans are developed, they are checked and double-checked. Then they are translated into the appropriate software that the robotic ship will understand, and these instructions are checked and double-checked. That is integrated with all the other software that will be beamed to the spacecraft covering the same period of time, any conflicts are resolved and then the final version is checked and, well, you know.
This process is very involved, and it is usually well over a month between the formulation and the execution of the plan. During that time, Dawn's orbit can deviate slightly from the expert navigators' mathematical predictions, preventing the spacecraft from flying over the desired targets. There are several reasons the actual orbit may differ from the orbit used for developing the plan. (We have seen related examples of this, including as Dawn approached Mars, when it orbited Vesta and when it spiraled from one mapping orbit to another.) Let's briefly consider two.
One reason is that we do not have perfect knowledge of the variations in the strength of Ceres' gravitational pull from one location to another. We have discussed before that measuring these tiny irregularities in the gravity field provides insight into the distribution of mass within the dwarf planet that gives rise to them. The team has mapped the hills and valleys of the field quite well and even better than expected. Still, the remaining small uncertainty can lead to slight differences between what navigators calculate Dawn's motion will be and what its actual motion will be as it is buffeted by the gravitational currents.
A second source of discrepancy is that Dawn's own activities distort its orbit. Every time the reaction control system expels a tiny burst of hydrazine to control the spacecraft's orientation, keeping it pointed at its target, the force not only affects the orientation but also nudges the probe in its orbit, slowing it down or speeding it up very slightly. It's up to the spacecraft to decide exactly when to make these small adjustments, and it is not possible for controllers to predict their timing. (In a similar way, when you are driving, you occasionally move the steering wheel to keep going the direction you want, even if is straight ahead. It would be impossible to forecast each tiny movement, because they all depend on what has already happened plus the exact conditions at the moment.) The details of the reaction control system activity also depend on the use of the novel hybrid control scheme, which the joint Orbital/JPL team developed because of the failure of two of the spacecraft's four reaction wheels. The effect of each small firing of hydrazine is very small, but they can add up.
It took about a month in this mapping orbit to discover many of the subtleties of the gravity field and gain experience with how hybrid control affects the orbit. But even before descending to this altitude, the operations team understood the nature of these effects and was well prepared to deal with them.
They devised several strategies, all of which are being used to good effect. One of the ways to account for Dawn's actual orbit differing from its planned orbit is simply to change the orbit. Simply? Well, not really. It turns out to that to analyze the orbit and then maneuver to correct it in a timely way is a surprisingly complicated process, but, come to think of it, what isn't complicated when flying a spaceship around a distant, alien world? Nevertheless, every three weeks, the flight team makes a careful assessment of the orbit and determines whether a small refinement with the ion propulsion system is in order. For technical reasons, if maneuvers are needed, they will be executed in pairs, so mission planners have scheduled two windows (each 12 hours long and separated by eight days) about every 23 days.
Adjustments to resynchronize the actual orbit with the predicted orbit that formed the basis of the exploration plan are known as “orbit maintenance maneuvers.” Succumbing to instincts developed during their long evolutionary history, engineers refer to them by an acronym: OMM. (As the common thread among team members is their technical training and passion for the exploration of the cosmos, and not Buddhism, the term is spoken by naming the letters, not pronouncing it as if it were a means of achieving inner peace. Instead, it may be thought of as a means of achieving orbital tranquility and harmony.)
For both Vesta and Ceres, trajectory analyses long in advance determined that OMMs would not be needed in the higher orbits, so no windows were included in those schedules. There have been three OMM opportunities since arriving at the lowest altitude above Ceres, but only the first was needed. Dawn performed the pair on Dec. 31-Jan. 1 and on Jan. 8 with its famously efficient ion engine. The orbit was good enough the next two times that OMMs were deemed unnecessary. It is certain that some future OMMs will be required. Your faithful correspondent provides frequent (and uncharacteristically concise) reports on Dawn's day-to-day activities, including OMMs.
By the end of the Jan. 8 OMM, Dawn's ion propulsion system had accumulated 2,019 days of operation in space, more than 5.5 years. During that time, the effective change in speed was 24,600 mph (39,600 kilometers per hour). (We have discussed in detail that this is not Dawn's current speed but rather the amount by which the ion engines have changed it.) This is uniquely high for a spacecraft to accomplish with its own propulsion system and validates our description of ion propulsion as delivering acceleration with patience. (The previous record holder, Deep Space 1, achieved 9,600 mph, or 15,000 kilometers per hour.)
The effect of Dawn's gentle ion thrusting during its mission has been nearly the same as that of the entire Delta II 7925H-9.5 rocket, with its nine external rocket engines, first stage, second stage and third stage. To get started on its interplanetary adventure, Dawn's rocket boosted it from Cape Canaveral to out of Earth orbit with only four percent higher velocity than Dawn subsequently added on its own with its ion engines.
As Dawn and Earth follow their own independent orbits around the sun (Dawn's now tied permanently to its gravitational master, Ceres), next month they will reach their greatest separation of the entire mission. On March 4 (about one Earth year after Ceres took hold of Dawn), on opposite sides of the solar system, they will be 3.95278 AU (367.434 million miles, or 591.328 million kilometers) from each other. (For those of you with full schedules, note that the maximum separation will be 5:40 a.m. PST.) They won't be this far apart again until Feb. 6, 2025, long after Dawn has ceased operating (as discussed below). The figure below depicts the arrangement next month.
Dawn has faced many challenges in its unique voyage in the forbidding depths of space, but it has surmounted all of them. It has even overcome the dire threat posed by the loss of two reaction wheels (the second failure occurring in orbit around Vesta 3.5 years and 1.3 billion miles, or 2.0 billion kilometers, ago). With only two operable reaction wheels (and those no longer trustworthy), the ship's remaining lifetime is very limited.
A year ago, the team couldn't count on Dawn even having enough hydrazine to last beyond next month. But the creative methods of conserving that precious resource have proved to be quite efficacious, and the reliable explorer still has enough hydrazine to continue to return bonus data for a while longer. Now it seems highly likely that the spacecraft will keep functioning through the scheduled end of its primary mission on June 30, 2016.
NASA may choose to continue the mission even after that. Such decisions are difficult, as there is literally an entire universe full of interesting subjects to study, but resources are more limited. In any case, even if NASA extended the mission, and even if the two wheels operated without faltering, and even if the intensive campaign of investigating Ceres executed flawlessly, losing not an ounce (or even a gram) of hydrazine to the kinds of glitches that can occur in such a complex undertaking, the hydrazine would be exhausted early in 2017. Clearly an earlier termination remains quite possible.
Regardless of when Dawn's end comes, it will not be a time for regret. The mission has realized its raison d'être and is reaping rewards even beyond those envisioned when it was conceived. It has taken us all on a marvelous interplanetary journey and allowed us to behold previously unseen sights of distant lands. The conclusion of the mission will be a time for gratitude that it was so successful. And until then, every new picture or other measurement adds to the richly detailed portrait of a faraway, exotic world. There is plenty more still to do before this remarkable story draws to a close.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.95 AU (367 million miles, or 591 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,475 times as far as the moon and 3.99 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and six minutes to make the round trip.
A veteran interplanetary traveler is writing the closing chapter in its long and storied expedition. In its final orbit, where it will remain even beyond the end of its mission, at its lowest altitude, Dawn is circling dwarf planet Ceres, gathering an album of spellbinding pictures and other data to reveal the nature of this mysterious world of rock and ice.
Ceres turns on its axis in a little more than nine hours (one Cerean day). Meanwhile, its new permanent companion, a robotic emissary from Earth, revolves in a polar orbit, completing a loop in slightly under 5.5 hours. It flies from the north pole to the south over the side of Ceres facing the sun. Then when it heads north, the ground beneath it is cloaked in the deep dark of night on a world without a moon (save Dawn itself). As we discussed last month, Dawn's primary measurements do not depend on illumination. It can sense the nuclear radiation (specifically, gamma rays and neutrons) and the gravity field regardless of the lighting. This month, let's take a look at the other measurements our explorer is performing, most of which do depend on sunlight.
Of course the photographs do. Dawn had already mapped Ceres quite thoroughly from higher altitudes. The spacecraft acquired an extensive set of stereo and color pictures in its third mapping orbit. But now that Dawn is only about 240 miles (385 kilometers) high, its images are four times as sharp, revealing new details of the strange and beautiful landscapes.
Our spaceship is closer to Ceres than the International Space Station is to Earth. At that short range, it takes a long time to capture all of the vast territory, because each picture covers a relatively small area. Dawn’s camera sees a square about 23 miles (37 kilometers) on a side, less than one twentieth of one percent of the more than one million square miles (nearly 2.8 million square kilometers). In an ideal world (which is not the one Dawn is in or at), it would take just over two thousand photos from this altitude to see all the sights. However, as we will discuss in more detail next month, it is not possible to control the orbital motion and the pointing of the camera accurately enough to manage without more photos than that.
Most of the time, Dawn is programmed to turn at just the right rate to keep looking at the ground beneath it as it travels, synchronizing its rotation with its revolution around Ceres. It photographs the passing scenery, storing the pictures for later transmission to Earth. But some of the time, it cannot take pictures, because to send its bounty of data, it needs to point its main antenna at that distant planet, home not only to its controllers but also to many others (including you, loyal reader) who share in the thrill of a bold cosmic adventure. Dawn spends about three and a half days (nine Cerean days) with its camera and other sensors pointed at Ceres. Then it radios its findings home for a little more than one day (almost three Cerean days). During these communications sessions, even when it soars over lit terrain, it does not observe the sights below.
Mission planners have devised an intricate plan that should allow nearly complete coverage in about six weeks. To accomplish this, they guided Dawn to a carefully chosen orbit, and it has been doing an exceptionally good job there executing its complex activities.
Last month, we marveled at a stunning view that was not the typical perspective of peering straight down from orbit. Sometimes controllers now program Dawn to take a few more pictures after it stops aiming its instruments down, while it starts to turn to aim its antenna to Earth. This clever idea provides bonus views of whatever happens to be in the camera's sights as it slowly rotates from the point beneath the spacecraft off to the horizon. Who doesn't feel the attraction of the horizon and long to know what lies beyond?
Another of Dawn's scientific devices is two different sensors combined into one instrument. Like the camera, the visible and infrared mapping spectrometers (VIR) look at the sunlight reflected from the ground. (As we'll see below, however, VIR also can detect something more.) A spectrometer breaks up light into its constituent colors, just as a prism or a droplet of water does when revealing, quite literally, all the colors of the rainbow. Dawn's visible spectrometer would have a view very much like that. The infrared spectrometer, of course, looks at wavelengths of light our limited eyes cannot see, just as there are wavelengths of sound our limited ears cannot hear (consult with your dog for details).
A spectrometer does more than simply disperse the light into its components, however. It measures the intensity of that light at the different wavelengths. The materials on the surface leave their signature in the sunlight they reflect, making some wavelengths relatively brighter and some dimmer. That characteristic pattern is called a spectrum. By comparing these spectra with spectra measured in laboratories, scientists can infer the nature of the minerals on the ground. We described some of the intriguing conclusions last month.
VIR does still more. Rather than record the visible spectrum and the infrared spectrum from a single region, it takes spectra at 256 adjacent locations simultaneously. This would be like taking one column of 256 pixels in a picture and having a separate spectrum for each. By stitching columns together, you could construct the two dimensional picture but with the added dimension of an extensive spectrum at every location. (Because the extra information provides a sort of depth that flat pictures don't have, the result is sometimes called an “image cube.”) This capability to build up an image with spectra everywhere is what makes it a mapping spectrometer. VIR produces a remarkably rich view of its targets!
VIR's spectra contain much finer measurements of the colors and a wider range of wavelengths than the camera's images. In exchange, the camera has sharper vision and so can discern smaller geological features. In more technical terms, VIR achieves better spectral resolution and the camera achieves better spatial resolution. Fortunately, it is not a competition, because Dawn has both, and the instruments yield complementary measurements.
VIR generates a very large volume of data in each snapshot. As a result, Dawn can only capture and store relatively small areas of the dwarf planet with the mapping spectrometers, especially at this low altitude. Scientists have recognized from the first design of the mission that it would not be possible to cover all of Ceres (or Vesta) with VIR from the closer orbits. Nevertheless, Dawn has far exceeded expectations, returning a great many more spectra than anticipated. Still, as long as the spacecraft operates in this final mapping orbit, there will continue to be interesting targets to study with VIR.
Based on the nearly 20 million spectra of Ceres that VIR acquired from higher altitudes, the team has determined that new infrared spectra will provide more insight into the dwarf planet's character than the visible spectra. Because of their composition, the minerals display more salient signatures in infrared wavelengths than visible. The excellent visible spectra from the first three mapping orbits are deemed more than sufficient. Therefore, to make the best use of our faithful probe and to dedicate the resources to what is most likely to yield new knowledge about Ceres, VIR is devoting its share of the mission data in this final orbit to its infrared mapping spectrometer. We have many more exciting discoveries to look forward to!
The infrared light Ceres reflects from the sun can tell scientists a great deal about the composition, but they can learn even more from analyzing VIR's measurements. The sun isn't the only source of infrared. Ceres itself is. Many people correctly associate infrared with heat, because warm objects emit infrared light, and the strength at different wavelengths depends on the temperature. That calls for measuring the spectrum! Distant from the sun though it is, Ceres is warmed slightly by the brilliant star, so it has a very faint infrared glow of its own. Scientists can distinguish in VIR's observations between the reflected infrared sunlight and the infrared light Ceres radiates. In essence, VIR can function as a remote thermometer.
Last month, in one of Dawn's best photos yet of Ceres, we considered planning a hike across a breathtaking landscape. In case we do, VIR has shown we should be prepared for chilly conditions. Observed temperatures (all rounded to the nearest multiple of five) during the day on the dwarf planet range from -135 degrees Fahrenheit (-95 degrees Celsius) to -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-35 degrees Celsius). (It is so cold in some locations and times, especially at night, that Ceres produces too little infrared light for VIR to measure. Temperatures below the coldest reported here actually don't register.) This finding provides compelling support for this writer's frequent claim that Ceres is really cool. In addition, knowing the temperatures will be very important for understanding geological processes on this icy, rocky world, just as we know the movement of terrestrial glaciers depends on temperature.
Your loyal correspondent can't -- or, at least, won't -- help but indulge his nerdiness with a brief tangent. The range of temperatures above represent the warmest on Ceres, given that VIR cannot measure lower values. It's amusing, if you have a similar weird sense of humor, that Ceres' average temperature apparently is not that far from what it would be for a black hole of the same mass. We won't delve into the physics here, but such a black hole would be -225 degrees Fahrenheit (-140 degrees Celsius). OK, enough hilarity. Back to Dawn and Ceres...
Ever creative, scientists are attempting another clever method to gain insight into the nature of this exotic orb. When Dawn is at just the right position in its orbit on the far side of Ceres, so that a straight line to Earth passes very close to the limb of Ceres itself, the spacecraft's radio signal will actually hit the dwarf planet. The radio waves interact with the materials on the surface, which can induce an exquisitely subtle distortion. After bouncing off the ground at a grazing angle, the radio signal continues on its way, heading toward Earth. The effect on the signal is much too small to affect the normal communications at all, but specialized equipment at NASA's Deep Space Network designed for this purpose might still be able to detect the tiny changes. The fantastically sensitive antennas measure the properties of the radio waves, and by studying the details, scientists may be able to learn more about the properties of the surface of the distant world. For example, this could help them distinguish between different types of materials (such as ice, rocks, sand, etc.) as well as reveal how rough or smooth the ground is at scales far, far smaller than the camera can discern. This is an extremely challenging measurement, and no small distortions have been detected so far, but always making the best possible use of the resources, scientists continue to look for them.
In addition to those bonus measurements, Dawn remains very productive in acquiring infrared spectra, photographs, gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra plus conducting measurements of the massive body's gravitational field, all of which contribute to unlocking the mysteries of the first dwarf planet ever discovered or explored. The venerable adventurer is in good condition and is operating flawlessly.
We have discussed extensively the failures of two of the four reaction wheels, devices Dawn used to depend on to control its orientation in space. Without three healthy reaction wheels, the probe has had to rely instead on hydrazine propellant expelled from the small jets of the reaction control system. (When Dawn uses its ion engine, that remarkable system does double duty, reducing the need for the hydrazine.)
For most of the time since escaping from Vesta's gravitational clutches in 2012, Dawn has kept the other two reaction wheels in reserve so any remaining lifetime from those devices could offset the high cost of hydrazine propellant to turn and point in this current tight orbit. Those two wheels have been on and functioning flawlessly since Dec. 14, 2015, and every day they operate, they keep the expenditure of the dwindling supply of hydrazine to half of what it would be without them. (Next month we will offer some estimates of how long Dawn might continue to operate.) But the ever-diligent team recognizes another wheel could falter at any moment, and they remain ready to continue the mission with pure hydrazine control after only a short recovery operation. If a third failure is at all like the two that have occurred already, the hapless wheel won't give an indication of a problem until it's too late. A reaction wheel failure evidently is entirely unpredictable. We'll know about it only after it occurs in the remote depths of space where Dawn resides at an alien world.
Earth and Ceres are so far from each other that their motions are essentially independent. The planet and the dwarf planet follow their own separate repetitive paths around the sun. And each carries its own retinue: Earth has thousands of artificial satellites and one prominent natural one, the moon. Ceres has one known satellite. It arrived there in March 2015, and its name is Dawn.
Coincidentally, both reached extremes earlier this month in their elliptical heliocentric orbits. Earth, in its annual journey around our star, was at perihelion, or the closest point to the sun, on Jan. 2, when it was 0.98 AU (91.4 million miles, or 147 million kilometers) away. Ceres, which takes 4.6 years (one Cerean year) for each loop, attained its aphelion, or greatest distance from the sun, on Jan. 6. On that day, it was 2.98 AU (277 million miles, or 445 million kilometers) from the gravitational master of the solar system.
Far, far from the planet where its deep-space voyage began, Dawn is now bound to Ceres, held in a firm but gentle gravitational embrace. The spacecraft continues to unveil new and fascinating secrets there for the benefit of all those who remain with Earth but who still look to the sky with wonder, who feel the lure of the unknown, who are thrilled by new knowledge, and who yearn to know the cosmos.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.87 AU (360 million miles, or 580 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,440 times as far as the moon and 3.93 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and four minutes to make the round trip.
Dawn is now performing the final act of its remarkable celestial choreography, held close in Ceres’ firm gravitational embrace. The distant explorer is developing humankind’s most intimate portrait ever of a dwarf planet, and it likely will be a long, long time before the level of detail is surpassed.
The spacecraft is concluding an outstandingly successful year 1,500 times nearer to Ceres than it began. More important, it is more than 1.4 million times closer to Ceres than Earth is today. From its uniquely favorable vantage point, Dawn can relay to us spectacular views that would otherwise be unattainable. At an average altitude of only 240 miles (385 kilometers), the spacecraft is closer to Ceres than the International Space Station is to Earth. From that tight orbit, the dwarf planet looks the same size as a soccer ball seen from only 3.5 inches (9.0 centimeters) away. This is in-your-face exploration.
The spacecraft has returned more than 16,000 pictures of Ceres this year (including more than 2,000 since descending to its low orbit this month). One of your correspondent’s favorites (below) was taken on Dec. 10 when Dawn was verifying the condition of its backup camera. Not only did the camera pass its tests, but it yielded a wonderful, dramatic view not far from the south pole. It is southern hemisphere winter on Ceres now, with the sun north of the equator. From the perspective of the photographed location, the sun is near the horizon, creating the long shadows that add depth and character to the scene. And usually in close-in orbits, we look nearly straight down. Unlike such overhead pictures typical of planetary spacecraft (including Dawn), this view is mostly forward and shows a richly detailed landscape ahead, one you can imagine being in — a real place, albeit an exotic one. This may be like the breathtaking panorama you could enjoy with your face pressed to the porthole of your spaceship as you are approaching your landing sight. You are right there. It looks — it feels! — so real and physical. You might actually plan a hike across some of the terrain. And it may be that a visiting explorer or even a colonist someday will have this same view before setting off on a trek through the Cerean countryside.
Of course, Dawn's objectives include much more than taking incredibly neat pictures, a task at which it excels. It is designed to collect scientifically meaningful photos and other valuable measurements. We'll see more below about what some of the images and spectra from higher altitudes have revealed about Ceres, but first let's take a look at the three highest priority investigations Dawn is conducting now in its final orbit, sometimes known as the low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). While the camera, visible mapping spectrometer and infrared mapping spectrometer show the surface, these other measurements probe beneath.
With the spacecraft this close to the ground, it can measure two kinds of nuclear radiation that come from as much as a yard (meter) deep. The radiation carries the signatures of the atoms there, allowing scientists to inventory some of the key chemical elements of geological interest. One component of this radiation is gamma ray photons, a high energy form of electromagnetic radiation with a frequency beyond visible light, beyond ultraviolet, even beyond X-rays. Neutrons in the radiation are entirely different from gamma rays. They are particles usually found in the nuclei of atoms (for those of you who happen to look there). Indeed, outweighing protons, and outnumbering them in most kinds of atoms, they constitute most of the mass of atoms other than hydrogen in Ceres (and everywhere else in the universe, including in your correspondent).
To tell us what members of the periodic table of the elements are present, Dawn's gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) does more than detect those two kinds of radiation. Despite its name, GRaND is not at all pretentious, but its capabilities are quite impressive. Consisting of 21 sensors, the device measures the energy of each gamma ray photon and of each neutron. (That doesn't lend itself to as engaging an acronym.) It is these gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra that reveal the identities of the atomic species in the ground.
Some of the gamma rays are produced by radioactive elements, but most of them and the neutrons are generated as byproducts of cosmic rays impinging on Ceres. Space is pervaded by cosmic radiation, composed of a variety of subatomic particles that originate outside our solar system. Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field protect the surface (and those who dwell there) from cosmic rays, but Ceres lacks such defenses. The cosmic rays interact with nuclei of atoms, and some of the gamma rays and neutrons that are released escape back into space where they are intercepted by GRaND on the orbiting Dawn.
Unlike the relatively bright light reflected from Ceres's surface that the camera, infrared spectrometer and visible spectrometer record, the radiation GRaND measures is very faint. Just as a picture of a dim object requires a longer exposure than for a bright subject, GRaND's "pictures" of Ceres require very long exposures, lasting weeks, but mission planners have provided Dawn with the necessary time. Because the equivalent of the illumination for the gamma ray and neutron pictures is cosmic rays, not sunlight, regions in darkness are no fainter than those illuminated by the sun. GRaND works on both the day side and the night side of Ceres.
In addition to the gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra, Dawn's other top priority now is measuring Ceres' gravity field. The results will help scientists infer the interior structure of the dwarf planet. The measurements made in the higher altitude orbits turned out to be even more accurate than the team had expected, but now that the probe is as close to Ceres as it will ever go, and so the gravitational pull is the strongest, they can obtain still better measurements.
Gravity is one of four fundamental forces in nature, and its extreme weakness is one of the fascinating mysteries of how the universe works. It feels strong to us (well, most of us) because we don't so easily sense the two kinds of nuclear forces, both of which extend only over extremely short distances, and we generally don't recognize the electromagnetic force. With both positive and negative electrical charges, attractive and repulsive electromagnetic forces often cancel. Not so with gravity. All matter exerts attractive gravity, and it can all add up. The reason gravity -- by far the weakest of the four forces -- is so salient for those of you on or near Earth is that there is such a vast amount of matter in the planet and it all pulls together to hold you down. Dawn overcame that pull with its powerful Delta rocket. Now the principal gravitational force acting on it is the cumulative effect of all the matter in Ceres, and that is what determines its orbital motion.
The spacecraft experiences a changing force both as the inhomogeneous dwarf planet beneath it rotates on its axis and as the craft circles that massive orb. When Dawn is closer to locations within Ceres with greater density (i.e., more matter), the ship feels a stronger tug, and when it is near regions with lower density, and hence less powerful gravity, the attraction is weaker. The spacecraft accelerates and decelerates very slightly as its orbit carries it closer to and farther from the volumes of different density. By carefully and systematically plotting the exquisitely small variations in the probe's motion, navigators can calculate how the mass is distributed inside Ceres, essentially creating an interior map. This technique allowed scientists to establish that Vesta, the protoplanet Dawn explored in 2011-2012, has a dense core (composed principally of iron and nickel) surrounded by a less dense mantle and crust. (That is one of the reasons scientists now consider Vesta to be more closely related to Earth and the other terrestrial planets than to typical asteroids.)
Mapping the orbit requires systems both on Dawn and on Earth. Using the large and exquisitely sensitive antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN), navigators measure tiny changes in the frequency, or pitch, of the spacecraft's radio signal, and that reveals changes in the craft's velocity. This technique relies on the Doppler effect, which is familiar to most terrestrial readers as they hear the pitch of a siren rise as it approaches and fall as it recedes. Other readers who more commonly travel at speeds closer to that of light recognize that the well-known blueshift and redshift are manifestations of the same principle, applied to light waves rather than sound waves. Even as Dawn orbits Ceres at 610 mph (980 kilometers per hour), engineers can detect changes in its speed of only one foot (0.3 meters) per hour, or one five-thousandth of a mph (one three-thousandth of a kilometer per hour). Another way to track the spacecraft is to measure the distance very accurately as it revolves around Ceres. The DSN times a radio signal that goes from Earth to Dawn and back. As you are reminded at the end of every Dawn Journal, those signals travel at the universal limit of the speed of light, which is known with exceptional accuracy. Combining the speed of light with the time allows the distance to be pinpointed. These measurements with Dawn's radio, along with other data, enable scientists to peer deep into the dwarf planet
Although it is not among the highest scientific priorities, the flight team is every bit as interested in the photography as you are. We are visual creatures, so photographs have a special appeal. They transport us to mysterious, faraway worlds more effectively than any propulsion system. Even as Dawn is bringing the alien surface into sharper focus now, the pictures taken in higher orbits have allowed scientists to gain new insights into this ancient world. Geologists have located more than 130 bright regions, none being more striking than the mesmerizing luster in Occator crater. The pictures taken in visible and infrared wavelengths have helped them determine that the highly reflective material is a kind of salt.
It is very difficult to pin down the specific composition with the measurements that have been analyzed so far. Scientists compare how reflective the scene is at different wavelengths with the reflective properties of likely candidate materials studied in laboratories. So far, magnesium sulfate yields the best match (although it is not definitive). That isn't the type of salt you normally put on your food (or if it is, I'll be wary about accepting the kind invitation to dine in your home), but it is very similar (albeit not identical) to Epsom salts, which have many other familiar uses.
Scientists' best explanation now for the deposits of salt is that when asteroids crash into Ceres, they excavate underground briny water-ice. Once on the surface and exposed to the vacuum of space, even in the freezing cold so far from the sun, the ice sublimes, the water molecules going directly from the solid ice to gas without an intermediate liquid stage. Left behind are the materials that had been dissolved in the water. The size and brightness of the different regions depend in part on how long ago the impact occurred. A very preliminary estimate is that Occator was formed by a powerful collision around 80 million years ago, which is relatively recent in geological times. (We will see in a future Dawn Journal how scientists estimate the age and why the pictures in this low altitude mapping orbit will help refine the value.)
As soon as Dawn's pictures of Ceres arrived early this year, many people referred to the bright regions as "white spots," although as we opined then, such a description was premature. The black and white pictures revealed nothing about the color, only the brightness. Now we know that most have a very slight blue tint. For reasons not yet clear, the central bright area of Occator is tinged with more red. Nevertheless, the coloration is subtle, and our eyes would register white.
Measurements with both finer wavelength discrimination and broader wavelength coverage in the infrared have revealed still more about the nature of Ceres. Scientists using data from one of the two spectrometers in the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer instrument (VIR) have found that a class of minerals known as phyllosilicates is common on Ceres. As with the magnesium sulfate, the identification is made by comparing Dawn's detailed spectral measurements with laboratory spectra of a great many different kinds of minerals. This technique is a mainstay of astronomy (with both spacecraft and telescopic observations) and has a solid foundation of research that dates to the nineteenth century, but given the tremendous variety of minerals that occur in nature, the results generally are neither absolutely conclusive nor extremely specific.
There are dozens of phyllosilicates on Earth (one well known group is mica). Ceres too likely contains a mixture of at least several. Other compounds are evident as well, but what is most striking is the signature of ammonia in the minerals. This chemical is manufactured extensively on Earth, but few industries have invested in production plants so far from their home offices. (Any corporations considering establishing Cerean chemical plants are invited to contact the Dawn project. Perhaps, however, mining would be a more appropriate first step in a long-term business plan.)
Ammonia's presence on Ceres is important. This simple molecule would have been common in the material swirling around the young sun almost 4.6 billion years ago when planets were forming. (Last year we discussed this period at the dawn of the solar system.) But at Ceres' present distance from the sun, it would have been too warm for ammonia to be caught up in the planet-forming process, just as it was even closer to the sun where Earth resides. There are at least two possible explanations for how Ceres acquired its large inventory of ammonia. One is that it formed much farther from the sun, perhaps even beyond Neptune, where conditions were cool enough for ammonia to condense. In that case, it could easily have incorporated ammonia. Subsequent gravitational jostling among the new residents of the solar system could have propelled Ceres into its present orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Another possibility is that Ceres formed closer to where it is now but that debris containing ammonia from the outer solar system drifted inward and some of it ultimately fell onto the dwarf planet. If enough made its way to Ceres, the ground would be covered with the chemical, just as VIR observed.
Scientists continue to analyze the thousands of photos and millions of infrared and visible spectra even as Dawn is now collecting more precious data. Next month, we will summarize the intricate plan that apportions time among pointing the spacecraft's sensors at Ceres to perform measurements, its main antenna at Earth to transmit its findings and receive new instructions and its ion engine in the direction needed to adjust its orbit.
The plans described last month for getting started in this fourth and final mapping orbit worked out extremely well. You can follow Dawn's activities with the status reports posted at least twice a week here. And you can see new pictures regularly in the Ceres image gallery.
We will be treated to many more marvelous sights on Ceres now that Dawn's pictures will display four times the detail of the views from its third mapping orbit. The mapping orbits are summarized in the following table, updated from what we have presented before. (This fourth orbit is listed here as beginning on Dec. 16. In fact, the highest priority work, which is obtaining the gamma ray spectra, neutron spectra and gravity measurements, began on Dec. 7, as explained last month. But Dec. 16 is when the spacecraft started its bonus campaign of measuring infrared spectra and taking pictures. Recognizing that what most readers care about is the photography, regardless of the scientific priorities, that is the date we use here.
|Mapping orbit||Dawn code name||Dates||Altitude in miles (kilometers)||Resolution in feet (meters) per pixel||Resolution compared to Hubble||Orbit period||Equivalent distance of a soccer ball|
|1||RC3||April 23 - May 9||8,400 (13,600)||4,200 (1,300)||24||15 days||10 feet (3.2 meters)|
|2||Survey||June 6-30||2,700 (4,400)||1,400 (410)||73||3.1 days||3.4 feet (1.0 meters)|
|3||HAMO||Aug 17 - Oct 23||915 (1,470)||450 (140)||217||19 hours||14 inches (34 cm)|
|4||LAMO||Dec 16 - end of mission||240 (385)||120 (35)||830||5.4 hours||3.5 inches (9.0 cm)|
Dawn is now well-positioned to make many more discoveries on the first dwarf planet discovered. Jan. 1 will be the 215th anniversary of Giuseppe Piazzi's first glimpse of that dot of light from his observatory in Sicily. Even to that experienced astronomer, Ceres looked like nothing other than a star, except that it moved a little bit from night to night like a planet, whereas the stars were stationary. (For more than a generation after, it was called a planet.) He could not imagine that more than two centuries later, humankind would dispatch a machine on a cosmic journey of more than seven years and three billion miles (five billion kilometers) to reach the distant, uncharted world he descried. Dawn can resolve details more than 60 thousand times finer than Piazzi's telescope would allow. Our knowledge, our capabilities, our reach and even our ambition all are far beyond what he could have conceived, and yet we can apply them to his discovery to learn more, not only about Ceres itself, but also about the dawn of the solar system.
On a personal note, I first saw Ceres through a telescope even smaller than Piazzi's when I was 12 years old. As a much less experienced observer of the stars than he was, and with the benefit of nearly two centuries of astronomical studies between us, I was thrilled! I knew that what I was seeing was the behemoth of the main asteroid belt. But it never occurred to me when I was only a starry-eyed youth that I would be lucky enough to follow up on Piazzi's discovery as a starry-eyed adult, responsible for humankind's first visitor to that fascinating alien world, answering a celestial invitation that was more than 200 years old.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.66 AU (340 million miles, or 547 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,360 times as far as the moon and 3.72 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and one minute to make the round trip.
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