Marc Rayman is the director and chief engineer for NASA's Dawn mission, which was launched in 2007 on a mission to orbit the two most massive bodies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to characterize the conditions and processes that shaped our solar system.
On the other side of the solar system, invisible by virtue both of the blinding glare of the sun and by the vastness of the distance, Dawn is continuing its remarkable cosmic adventure.
Orbiting high above dwarf planet Ceres, the spacecraft is healthy and performing all of its assignments successfully even when confronted with what appears to be adversity.
In the last four Dawn Journals, we described the ambitious plans to maneuver the craft so it would cross the line from the sun to Ceres on April 29 and take pictures plus infrared and visible spectra from that special perspective. With Dawn between the sun and Ceres, the alignment is known as opposition, because from the spacecraft’s point of view, Ceres is opposite the sun.
As explained in March, those opposition measurements may provide clues to the nature of the material on the ground with much greater detail than the camera or other sensors could ever discern from orbit. The veteran explorer carried out its complex tasks admirably, and scientists are overjoyed with the quality of the data.
The flight team had worked out a plan to provide a backup opportunity to study Ceres at opposition on June 28. The results of the April 29 observations are so good, however, that the backup was deemed unnecessary and so has been canceled. In this phase of Dawn’s mission, the highest priority continues to be recording cosmic rays so scientists can improve their measurements of the atomic constituents down to about a yard (meter) underground.
Dawn’s latest success followed less than a week after what might have seemed to some people to be a very serious problem. Indeed, in other circumstances, it could have been devastating to the mission. Fortunately, the expert team piloting this spaceship was well prepared to steer clear of any dire scenarios.
On April 23, reaction wheel #1 failed. This was Dawn’s third incident of losing a reaction wheel. (In full disclosure, the units aren’t actually lost. We know precisely where they are. But given that they stopped functioning, they might as well be elsewhere in the universe; they don’t do Dawn any good.) Reaction wheels are disks that spin to help control the orientation of the spacecraft, somewhat like gyroscopes. By electrically changing a wheel’s speed (as high as 75 revolutions per second), the spacecraft can turn or hold steady.
We have discussed Dawn’s reaction wheels many times, and reaction wheel enthusiasts are encouraged to review the detailed history by rereading the last 275,000 words posted. But because this is the last time we will ever need to discuss them, we will summarize the entire story to its conclusion here.
The wheels do not help propel Dawn through space. The ion propulsion system does that (and, by the way, does it amazingly well). The wheels are used to rotate the spacecraft around its three axes, which can be called pitch, roll and yaw; x, y and z; left-right, front-back and up-down; Kirk, Spock and McCoy; animal, vegetable and mineral; or many other names. Regardless of the designations, three wheels are needed because there are three dimensions of space. Always conservative, designers equipped Dawn with four wheels. On a nearly decade-long interplanetary odyssey to well over one million times farther from Earth than astronauts can travel, the probe was designed with enough spare hardware to tolerate the loss of almost any component, including a reaction wheel. (The spacecraft is also outfitted with a backup radio receiver, radio transmitter, central computer, ion engine, camera, heaters, valves and on and on.)
One reaction wheel failed in June 2010, about a year before Dawn arrived at its first destination, Vesta, the second largest body orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. A second one failed in August 2012 as Dawn was escaping from Vesta, having far surpassed its objectives in exploring the protoplanet. (That second failure is so long ago, that now, for half of its time in space, Dawn has not had three operable wheels, despite the intent of its cautious designers.)
The flight team was able to overcome the loss of the two reaction wheels, even though that had never been planned for (nor even considered) when the spacecraft was being designed and built. It required not only a great deal of work but also exceptional ingenuity and diligence. That heroic effort paid off very handsomely in allowing the spacecraft to continue its ambitious deep-space expedition, trekking for 2.5 years from Vesta to Ceres and then conducting a comprehensive study of that dwarf planet, the first one humankind had ever seen. Dawn exceeded all of its goals and successfully concluded its prime mission in June 2016. And even with the malfunctions of two reaction wheels, the team kept the spacecraft so healthy and productive that it is now conducting an extended mission, gathering even more riches at Ceres.
There was no basis for predicting when another wheel would fail, but it was widely considered to be only a matter of time. Because the four wheels are of the same design, and some had failed on other spacecraft as well, confidence that the two remaining wheels would function for long was low. Indeed, your faithful correspondent, in his technical role on Dawn, occasionally referred to the "two failed wheels and two doomed wheels."
When the spacecraft reported on April 24 that another wheel had failed, no one on the team was very surprised. In fact, the biggest surprise was that the two doomed wheels had continued to operate as long as they did after the other two stopped.
The strategy for recovering from each of the two earlier failures and preparing for another was complex and multifaceted. Let’s recall just a few aspects.
Dawn carries a small supply of conventional rocket propellant called hydrazine, expelled from small jets of the reaction control system. (Yes, Dawn has a full set of backup jets.) The reaction wheels occasionally need a little bit of hydrazine help, and that is why the reaction control system is onboard. (For propulsion, it is far less efficient than the ion propulsion system, and Dawn has never used hydrazine for that purpose.) In principle, the reaction control system could do the job of the reaction wheels, but that would require a great deal more hydrazine than Dawn carried when it left Earth. Indeed, the reason for reaction wheels is that they control the orientation for much less mass. Well, to be more precise, they control the orientation when they work. When they fail, they don’t do as well. The flight team invested a tremendous effort in stretching the hydrazine so it could be used in place of the wheels, and that has proven to be extremely successful. In fact, Dawn arrived at Ceres ready to complete its mission here with zero wheels in case a third wheel was on the verge of failing.
The amount of hydrazine Dawn uses depends on its activities. Whenever it fires an ion engine, the engine controls two of the three axes, significantly reducing the consumption of hydrazine. In orbit around Vesta and Ceres, the probe often trains its sensors on the alien landscapes beneath it. The lower the orbital altitude, the faster the orbital velocity, so Dawn needs to turn faster to keep the ground in its sights. Also, the gravitational attraction of these massive worlds tends to tug on the unusually large solar arrays in a way that would turn the ship in an unwanted direction. (For more on this, see here.) That force is stronger at lower altitude, so Dawn needs to work harder to counter it. The consequence is that Dawn uses more hydrazine in orbit around Vesta and Ceres than when it is journeying between worlds, orbiting the sun and maneuvering with its ion engine. And it uses more hydrazine in lower orbits than in higher ones. Following the first reaction wheel problem, mission controllers decided to hold the wheels in reserve for the times that they would be most valuable in offsetting hydrazine use.
From August 2010 to May 2011, the spacecraft flew with the one failed wheel and the three healthy (but doomed) wheels all turned off. As it approached Vesta, controllers reactivated the three wheels, and they served well for almost all of Dawn’s work there. The second malfunction occurred in August 2012 as Dawn was ascending on its departure spiral, and the spacecraft correctly deactivated all of them and reverted to hydrazine control even before radioing the news to distant Earth. The wheels had been scheduled to be turned off again shortly after Dawn pulled free of Vesta, so the team decided to leave them off then and complete the escape without reaction wheels. They were not used again (except for four brief periods) until 1.2 billion miles (1.9 billion kilometers) later, in December 2015, when Dawn reached its lowest altitude orbit around Ceres.
At Ceres, of course, only two reaction wheels were operable, and Dawn was not designed to use fewer than three. But the day after the first reaction wheel problem occurred in 2010, engineers at JPL and Orbital ATK (back then, it was Orbital Sciences Corporation) began preparing for another failure. They started working on a method to control the orientation with two wheels plus hydrazine, a combination known as hybrid control. That would consume less hydrazine than using no wheels, although more than if three wheels were available. Following an unusually rapid development of such complex software for a probe in deep space, the team installed the new capability in Dawn’s central computer in April 2011, shortly before Vesta operations began. That software performed flawlessly from December 2015 until the third reaction wheel failed last month.
The team determined in 2010 that the benefits of operating the spacecraft with only one wheel would not justify the investment of effort required. So now that three have failed, the last operable wheel is turned off, and it will never be used again. But as we saw above, the team has a great deal of experience flying Dawn with no wheels at all. They had piloted the ship in that configuration through the solar system and around Ceres for a total of four years, so they were well prepared to continue.
With the third wheel failure, we can be grateful that each wheel provided as much benefit as it did. The wheels allowed Dawn to conduct extremely valuable work while using the hydrazine very sparingly. Now that we are finished with the wheels, the members of the flight team are not despondent, dear reader, and you shouldn’t be either. Dawn can continue to operate until the hydrazine is depleted or some unforeseen problem arises. But risks are the nature of venturing into the forbidding depths of space. For now, Dawn has life left in it. Next month we will describe the plans for using the remaining hydrazine.
Less than a week after the third reaction wheel failed, Dawn performed perfectly in collecting all of the planned pictures (using both the primary camera and the backup camera) as well as visible spectra and infrared spectra at opposition. Reaching that special position on the line from the sun to Ceres required two months of intricate maneuvers. By coincidence, another special alignment occurs very soon. This one is called conjunction.
Earth and Ceres follow independent orbits around the sun. Earth carries with it the moon and thousands of artificial satellites. The dwarf planet has one companion, a native of Earth, a temporary resident of Vesta and a resident of Ceres since March 2015.
Because Earth is closer to the sun than Ceres, it is bound by a stronger gravitational leash and so circles faster. Early next month, their separate orbital paths will bring them to opposite sides of the sun. From the terrestrial perspective (shared by some readers, perhaps even including you), the sun and Ceres will appear to be at the same location in the sky. This is conjunction.
Communicating with distant interplanetary spacecraft is not easy. (Surprise!) It is even more difficult near conjunction, when the radio signals between Earth and the spacecraft travel close to the sun on their way. The solar environment is fierce indeed, and the stormy plasma that surrounds the star interferes with the radio waves, like hot, turbulent air making light shimmer. Communications will be unreliable from May 31 to June 12. Even though some signals may get through, mission controllers can’t count on hearing from the spacecraft or contacting it. But they are confident the stalwart ship will manage on its own, executing the instructions transmitted to it beforehand and handling any problems until Earth and Ceres are better positioned for engineers to provide any help. Occasionally Deep Space Network antennas, pointing near the sun, will listen amid the roaring solar noise for Dawn’s faint whisper, but receiving any crackling messages will simply be a bonus. In essence, conjunction means radio silence.
Dawn’s proximity to the sun presents a convenient opportunity for terrestrial observers to locate Dawn in the sky. On June 5-6, it will be less than one solar diameter from the sun. Ceres does not orbit the sun in the same plane as Earth, so it does not always go directly behind the disk of the sun. The spacecraft and dwarf planet will be a little bit south of the sun.
If you hold three fingers (preferably your own) together at arm’s length and block the sun any time from June 1 to 10 (and you are encouraged to do so), you will also cover Dawn. From June 3 to June 8, you can cover the dazzling celestial signpost and Dawn at the same time with your thumb.Dawn is very big for an interplanetary spacecraft (or for an otherworldly dragonfly, for that matter), with a wingspan of nearly 65 feet (19.7 meters). However, it will be 346 million miles (557 million kilometers) away during conjunction, more than 3.7 times as far as the sun.
Those who lack the requisite superhuman (or even supertelescopic) vision to discern the fantastically remote spacecraft through the blinding light of the sun needn’t worry. We can overcome the limitation of our visual acuity with our passion for exploring the cosmos and our burning desire for bold adventures far from home. For this alignment is a fitting occasion to reflect once again upon missions deep into space.
There, in that direction, is Earth’s faraway emissary to alien worlds. You can point right to where it is. Dawn has traveled more than 3.8 billion miles (6.1 billion kilometers) on a remarkable odyssey. It is the product of creatures fortunate enough to be able to combine their powerful curiosity about the workings of the cosmos with their impressive abilities to wonder, investigate, and ultimately understand. While its builders remain in the vicinity of the planet upon which they evolved, their robotic ambassador now is passing on the far side of the extraordinarily distant sun.
This is the same sun that is more than 100 times the diameter of Earth and a third of a million times its mass. This is the same sun that has been the unchallenged master of our solar system for more than 4.5 billion years. This is the same sun that has shone down on Earth all that time and has been the ultimate source of much of the heat, light and other energy upon which residents of the planet have depended. This is the same sun that has so influenced human expression in art, literature, mythology and religion for uncounted millennia. This is the same sun that has motivated impressive scientific studies for centuries. This is the same sun that is our signpost in the Milky Way galaxy. Daring and noble missions like Dawn transport all of us well beyond it.
Dawn is 31,600 miles (50,800 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.72 AU (346 million miles, or 557 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,555 times as far as the moon and 3.68 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and two minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
5:00 pm PDT May 24, 2017
Dawn has accomplished an extraordinary orbital dance.
Dawn has accomplished an extraordinary orbital dance. It completed the cosmic choreography with the finesse and skill that have impressed fans since its debut in space nearly a decade ago. Dawn’s latest stellar performance with Ceres took two months and four acts. (Although Ceres played an essential role in the performance, it was much easier than Dawn’s. Ceres’ part was to exert a gravitational pull, which, thanks to all the mass within the dwarf planet, is pretty much inevitable.)
In February, we presented a detailed preview of the spacecraft’s extensive orbital maneuvering with its ion engine. Now, like so many of Dawn’s cool plans, that complex flight is more than an ambitious goal. It is real. (And the Dawn project will negotiate with any theme park that would like to turn that or any of our other deep-space feats into rides. Another good candidate is here.)
But there is more to do. The reason for such dramatic changes in the orbit is not to show off the flight team’s prowess in piloting an interplanetary spaceship. Rather, it is so Dawn’s new orbital path will cross the line from the sun to the gleaming center of Occator Crater on April 29. From the explorer’s point of view at that special position, Occator will be opposite the sun, which astronomers (and readers of the last three Dawn Journals) call opposition. Last month we explained the opposition surge, in which photographing the crater’s strikingly bright region, known as Cerealia Facula, may help scientists discover details of the reflective material covering the ground there, even at the microscopic level.
Dawn is multitasking. Even as it was executing its space acrobatics, and when it measures the opposition surge later this week, its most important duty is to continue monitoring cosmic rays. Scientists use the spacecraft’s recordings of the noise from this space radiation to improve the measurements it made at low altitude of radiation emitted by Ceres.
Now that Dawn is on course for opposition, let’s take a look at the observations that are planned. Measuring the opposition surge requires more than photographing Cerealia Facula right at opposition. The real information that scientists seek is how the brightness changes over a small range of angles very near opposition. They will compare what Dawn finds for Cerealia Facula with what they measure in carefully designed and conducted laboratory experiments.
To think about Dawn’s plan, let’s consider a clock. Ceres is at the center of the face with its north pole pointing toward the 12. As in this figure, the sun is far, far to the left, well outside the 9 and off the clock. This arrangement matches the alignment in this figure.
Now let’s put the spacecraft on the tip of the second hand, so it takes only one minute to orbit around Ceres. (In reality, it will take Dawn 59 days to complete one revolution in this new orbit, but we’ll speed things up here. We can also ignore for now that Dawn’s orbit is not circular. That would correspond, for example, to the length of the second hand changing as it goes around. This clock doesn’t have that feature.) If the clock were one foot (30 centimeters) across, Ceres would be a little more than a quarter of an inch (seven millimeters) in diameter, or smaller than a pea. Dawn is at a high altitude now, which is why Ceres is so small on the clock.
With this arrangement, opposition is when the second hand is on the 9 and Occator is pointed in that direction as well, so the sun, spacecraft and crater are all on the same line. All of the opposition surge measurements need to occur within about one second of the 9, and most of them have to be within a quarter of a second of that position. This precision has created quite a challenge to the flight team for navigating to and performing the observations.
Readers have long clamored for more information on clocks in the Dawn gift shops, which we have not addressed in more than three years. (Most, of course, clamor for refunds. For that, please take your clock in person to the refund center nearest you, which usually is near the largest black hole in your galaxy.) We hope the discussion this month has filled that horological void.
Dawn had this view in its third mapping orbit at an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). It shows another example of material that flowed on the ground. A powerful impact occurred on the northwest rim of Datan Crater, creating the unnamed 12-mile (20-kilometer) near the top of the picture. The impact melted or even vaporized some material and unleashed a flow that extends south as much as 20 miles (32 kilometers). With a thickness of a few tens of yards (meters), it is not nearly as deep as the flow in the photo above. This scene is at 60°N, 247°E on this map. Dawn obtained more detailed photos of this region from a lower altitude, but this terrain covers such a large area that it’s easier to take it all in with this picture. (We presented an even broader view of this region here.) Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The problem would be difficult enough if Ceres presented Occator to Dawn as a bright bullseye for the camera, but the dwarf planet is not that cooperative. Rather, like all planetary bodies, Ceres turns on its axis, so even if Dawn managed to hover on the line from the sun to Ceres, Occator would be visible only half the time. The rest of the time, the crater would be on the other side of Ceres, cloaked in the darkness of night (which would compromise a measurement of how much sunlight it reflects) and blocked from Dawn’s view by an opaque dwarf planet 584 miles (940 kilometers) in diameter.
Of course, Dawn can’t hover, and Occator is a moving target that’s not visible half the time. That introduces further complications. As Ceres’ rotation brings Occator from night into day (that is, it is sunrise -- dawn! -- at Occator), the crater will be on the limb from Dawn’s perspective. (Remember, Dawn is aligned with the sun.) The foreshortening would make a poor view for measuring the opposition surge. We need to have the crater closer to the center of the disc of Ceres, displaying its bright terrain for Dawn to see, not near the edge, where Cerealia Facula would appear compressed. (In November we saw a photo of Occator near the limb. When Dawn measures the opposition surge, it will be more than 13 times higher.)
Dawn’s orbit has been carefully designed so the spacecraft will cross the line from the sun to Occator when the crater is along the centerline of Ceres. That will give Dawn the best possible view. At that time, the sun will be as high as it can be that day from Occator’s perspective. Because the crater is at 20°N latitude, and Ceres’ axis is tilted only 4 degrees, the sun does not get directly overhead, but it reaches its highest point at noon.
If that is confusing, think about your own location on your planet. For most terrestrial readers, the sun never gets directly overhead (and for all, there are long stretches of the year in which it does not). But as the sun arcs across the sky from morning until evening, its highest point, closest to the zenith, is at noon. Now think about the same thing from the perspective of being far out in space, along the line from the sun to Earth, looking down on Earth as it rotates. That location will come over the limb at sunrise. (That sunrise is for someone still there on the ground. From your vantage point in space, the sun is behind you and Earth is in front of you.) Then the turning Earth will carry it to the other limb, where it will disappear over the horizon at sunset. The best view from space will be in the middle, at noon. If you have a globe, you can confirm this. Just remember that because of the tilt of Earth’s axis, the sun always stays between 23.5°N and 23.5°S. If it’s still confusing, don’t worry! You don’t need to understand this detail to follow the description of the observation plan, and you may rest assured that the Dawn team has a reasonably good grasp of the geometry.
Dawn observed this pair of overlapping craters near 50°N, 126°E from an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) in its third mapping orbit. A broad landslide reaches as much as nine miles (15 kilometers) northeast from both craters. Flows with characteristics like this are found in many locations on Ceres, taking long paths on shallow slopes outside crater walls rather than inside. In general, they did not form at the time the associated craters did but are the result of subsequent processes. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Dawn’s orbital path is timed to make opposition occur as close as possible to 12:00:00 in the Occator Standard Time zone, and that happens to be 2:46:20 a.m. PDT on April 29. (We are glossing over many complications, but one fortunate simplification in the problem is that Cereans do not use daylight saving time. The Cerean day is only nine hours and four minutes long, but they’re so far from the sun that they don’t even bother trying to save daylight.)
Dawn will photograph Ceres extensively during the brief period around opposition. The spacecraft will be around 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers) above Ceres, a view that would be equivalent to seeing a soccer ball 15 feet (4.7 meters) away. Occator Crater will be like a scar on the ball less than seven-eighths of an inch (2.2 centimeters) wide. The principal target, Cerealia Facula, would be a glowing pinhead, not even a tenth of an inch (about two millimeters) across, at the center of the crater.
Dawn took this photo of Ceres on March 28 from an altitude of 30,100 miles (48,400 kilometers) during its long coast to even greater heights. (The trajectory is described here.) Navigators used this and other pictures taken then to help pin down the spacecraft’s position in orbit in preparation for the third period of ion thrusting on April 4-12. (When we described the plan in February, the thrusting was scheduled for April 3-14. Dawn’s orbital trajectory following the two previous thrust segments was so good that not as much thrusting was needed.) Another navigation image taken after that maneuver is below. When Dawn photographs Occator Crater at opposition on April 29, they will be closer together, so Ceres will show up with 2.4 times more detail than here. More significant will be that the sun will be directly behind Dawn, so Ceres will appear as a fully illuminated disc (like a full moon rather than a half moon, or, to be more appropriate for this mission, like a full dwarf planet). This scene is centered at 33°S, 228°E, and most of what’s illuminated here is east of that location on this map. Near the top is Occator Crater, with its famously bright Cerealia Facula appearing as a bright spot. The crater is 57 miles (92 kilometers) across. Just below and to the right of center is the prominent Urvara Crater. At 106 miles (170 kilometers) in diameter, Urvara is the third largest crater on Ceres. We have seen Urvara in much finer detail several times before, most recently in October. To its right is Yalode, the second largest crater, 162 miles (260 kilometers) in diameter. We saw some intriguing details of its geology last month. The picture below includes the largest crater on Ceres. Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Dawn has spent a great deal of time scrutinizing Ceres from more than 50 times closer (see this table for a summary, including comparisons with a soccer ball for other altitudes). To accomplish this new goal, however, we don’t need high resolution. There are other technical considerations that require the greater altitude. We have already seen Cerealia Facula in as much detail as Dawn will ever reveal. But thanks to the team’s creativity, we have the possibility of learning about it on a far finer scale than had ever been considered.
As we have discussed before, scientists will study the handful of pixels in each image that contain Cerealia Facula to determine how the brightness changes as the viewing angle changes. Throughout its observations, Dawn will take pictures covering a range of exposures. After all, we don’t know how large or small the surge in brightness will be. The objective is to find out. The plan also includes taking pictures through the camera’s color filters to help determine whether the strength of the opposition surge depends on the wavelength of light. (Coherent backscatter may be more sensitive to the wavelength than shadow hiding.) In addition, the probe will collect visible and infrared spectra. (Dawn’s photos and spectra will capture a great many more locations on Ceres than Cerealia Facula. Indeed, well over half of the dwarf planet will be observed near opposition. The data for all these other locations will provide opportunities for still more valuable insights.)
Dawn took this photo of Ceres on April 17 from an altitude of 27,800 miles (44,800 kilometers). Like the one above, this was taken to help navigate the spacecraft to opposition. Based on the navigation pictures and other data, the operations team developed a pair of trajectory correction maneuvers to fine tune the orbit. (This maneuvering was depicted in the figures in February as the fourth and final thrusting segment. The spacecraft executed the first with five hours of ion thrusting on April 22. It was scheduled to perform the second with a little less than 4.5 hours on April 23-24, but, as the last update to this Dawn Journal before it was posted, that did not occur. See the postscript.) This scene is centered at 52°S, 110°E, and the landscape in sunlight is to the east on this map. In the upper right is Kerwan, the largest Cerean crater at 174 miles (280 kilometers) in diameter. (We saw a close-up of part of this crater in October.) Kerwan is noticeably polygonal because the crater walls formed along preexisting underground fractures when the impactor struck. The largest crater in the grouping just below and right of center is Chaminuka Crater, which is 76 miles (122 kilometers) across. (Chaminuka was a spirit and prophet among the Shona people in what is now Zimbabwe. He could cause a barren tree to bear food and rain to come during a drought. Chaminuka also could turn into a child, a woman, an old man or even a ball. Despite these talents, there’s no evidence the prophet foretold anything about the geology of Ceres nor ever turned into a crater.) Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Although observing the opposition surge is a bonus in the extended mission, and not as high a priority as many of Dawn’s other scientific assignments, the operations team has taken extra measures to improve the likelihood of it working. Occasionally the camera experiences a glitch, perhaps from cosmic rays, that temporarily prevents the instrument from taking pictures. Therefore, for the opposition surge, the spacecraft will use both the primary camera and the backup camera. Even with well over 85,000 photos during Dawn’s exploration of Vesta and Ceres, the two cameras have been operated simultaneously only once. That was in February, and the purpose then was to verify that the cameras and all other systems (including spacecraft thermal control, data management and even extensive mission control software on distant Earth) would perform as engineers predicted. That test was successful and helped prepare for this upcoming observation.
The plan to measure the opposition surge on Ceres is complex and challenging, and the outcome is by no means assured. But that’s the nature of most efforts to uncover the universe’s secrets. After all, an expedition to orbit and explore two uncharted worlds that had appeared as little more than pinpoints of light among the stars for two centuries, the two largest bodies between Mars and Jupiter, is complex and challenging, and yet it has accomplished a great deal more than anticipated. The reward for such a bold undertaking is the thrill of new knowledge. But there are also rewards in engaging in the endeavor itself, as the spacecraft transports us far from the confines of our humble planetary residence. Such a journey fuels the fires of our passion for adventure far from home and our yearning for new sights and new perspectives on the cosmos.
Dawn is 17,800 miles (28,700 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.64 AU (339 million miles, or 545 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,505 times as far as the moon and 3.62 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.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PDT April 25, 2017
P.S. Just before this Dawn Journal was to be posted on April 24, when a scheduled telecommunications session began, the flight team discovered that the third of the spacecraft’s four reaction wheels had failed. We have written a great deal about these devices and the team’s extraordinary creativity in conducting an extremely successful mission without a full complement. The unit failed before the final, short period of ion thrusting, and the spacecraft correctly responded by entering one of its safe modes and assigning control of its orientation to the hydrazine thrusters. That meant it could not execute the brief maneuver, which would have changed the speed in orbit by 1.4 mph (2.3 kilometers per hour). The team quickly diagnosed the condition and returned the spacecraft to normal operation (still using hydrazine control) on April 25. They also determined that Dawn’s trajectory is close enough to the original plan that the opposition surge measurements can still be conducted. This experienced group of space explorers knows how to do it without the reaction wheels. (For most of the time since Dawn left Vesta in 2012, including the first year of Ceres operations, all four wheels were turned off. This will be no different.) See this mission status update for additional information. Next month’s Dawn Journal will include this new chapter in the reaction wheel story, the outcome of the attempt to observe the opposition surge and more.
Now in its third year of orbiting a distant dwarf planet, a spacecraft from Earth is as active as ever. Like a master artist, Dawn is working hard to add fine details to its stunning portrait of Ceres.
In this phase of its extended mission, the spacecraft’s top priority is to record space radiation (known as cosmic rays) in order to refine its earlier measurements of the atomic species down to about a yard (meter) underground. The data Dawn has been collecting are excellent.
As we explained in January, the ambitious mission has added a complex bonus to its plans. The team is piloting the ship through an intricate set of space maneuvers to dramatically shift its orbit around Ceres. They are now about halfway through, and it has been smooth sailing. Dawn is on course and on schedule. (If you happen to be one of the few readers for whom it isn’t second nature to plan how to change a spacecraft’s orbit around a dwarf planet by 90 degrees and then fly it under control of ion engine, last month’s Dawn Journal presents a few of the details that may not be obvious. And you can follow the adventurer’s orbital progress with the regular mission status updates.)
If all goes well, on April 29 the new orbit will take Dawn exactly between the sun and the famous bright region at the center of Occator Crater. Named Cerealia Facula, the area is composed largely of salts. (Based on infrared spectra, the strongest candidate for the primary constituent is sodium carbonate). The probe will be at an altitude of about 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers), or more than 50 times higher than it was in 2016 when it captured its sharpest photos of Occator (as well as the rest of Ceres’ 1.1 million square miles, or 2.8 million square kilometers). But the objective of reaching a position at which the sun and Ceres are in opposite directions, a special alignment known as opposition, is not to take pictures that display more details to our eyes. In fact, however, the pictures will contain intriguing new details that are not readily discerned by visual inspection. Dawn will take pictures as it gets closer and closer to opposition, covering a range of angles. In each image, scientists will scrutinize the handful of pixels on Cerealia Facula to track how the brightness changes as Dawn’s vantage point changes.
We described the opposition surge, in which the reflected sunlight at opposition may be significantly brighter than it is in any other geometrical arrangement. A few degrees or even a fraction of a degree can make a large difference. But why is that? What is the underlying reason for the opposition surge? What can we learn by measuring it? And is the best cake better than the best candy?
Those are all interesting and important questions. We will address some of them here and leave the rest for your own thorough investigation.
There are at least three separate physical effects that may contribute to the opposition surge. One of them is known as shadow hiding. When the sun shines on the ground, tiny irregularities in the surface, even at the microscopic level, will cast shadows. When you look at the ground, those shadows collectively detract from its overall brightness, even if each individual shadow is too small for you to see. The total amount of light reflected off the ground and into your eyes (or your camera) is less than it would be if every point, no matter how small, were well lit. However, if you look along the same direction as the incoming light, then all the shadows will be hidden. They will all be on the opposite side of those tiny irregularities, out of reach of both the incident light and your sight. In that case, anything you can see will be illuminated, and the scene will be brighter. The figure below is intended to illustrate this phenomenon of shadow hiding (and excluding the caption, the picture is probably worth almost 480 words).
The opposition surge was first described scientifically in 1887 by Hugo von Seeliger, an accomplished astronomer and highly esteemed teacher of astronomers. He analyzed data collected by Gustav Müller when Earth’s and Saturn’s orbits around the sun brought Saturn into opposition, and the brightness of the rings increased unexpectedly. Seeliger realized that shadow hiding among the myriad particles in the rings could explain Müller’s observations. The opposition surge is occasionally known as the Seeliger effect. (Although astronomers had been observing the rings for more than two centuries by then, a careful scientific analysis to show that the rings were not solid but rather composed of many small particles had only been completed about 30 years before Seeliger’s advance.)
Now astronomers recognize the opposition surge on many solar system bodies, including Earth’s moon and the moons of other planets, as well as Mars and asteroids. In fact, it also occurs on many materials on Earth, including vegetation. Scientists exploit the phenomenon to determine the character of materials at a distance when they can make careful measurements at opposition.
For many solar system objects, however, it is difficult or impossible to position the observer along the line between the sun and the target. But thanks to the extraordinary maneuverability provided by Dawn’s ion engine, we may be able to perform the desired measurement in Occator Crater.
It was nearly a century after Seeliger’s description of shadow hiding before scientists realized that there is another contributor to the opposition surge, which we mention only briefly here. It depends on the principle of constructive interference, which applies more in physics than in politics. Waves (in this case, light waves) that have their crests at the same places can add up to be especially strong (which makes the light bright). (Destructive interference, which may be more evident outside of the physics realm, occurs when troughs of one wave cancel crests of another.) We will not delve into why constructive interference tends to occur at opposition, but anyone with a thorough understanding of classical electromagnetic theory can work it out, as physicists did in the 1960s to 1980s. (More properly, it should be formulated not classically but quantum mechanically, but we recognize that some readers will prefer the former methodology because it is, as one physicist described it in 1968, "much simpler and more satisfying to the physical intuition." So, why make it hard?) For convenient use to ruin parties, the most common term for constructive interference in the opposition surge is coherent backscatter, but it sometimes goes by the other comparably self-explanatory terms weak photon localization and time reversal symmetry. Regardless of the name, as the light waves interact with the material they are illuminating at opposition, constructive interference can produce a surge in brightness.
The intensity of the opposition surge depends on the details of the material reflecting the light. Even the relative contributions of shadow hiding and coherent backscatter depend on the properties of the materials. (While both cause the reflected light to grow stronger as the angle to opposition shrinks, coherent backscatter tends to dominate at the very smallest angles.)
Especially sensitive laboratory measurements show that sometimes shadow hiding and coherent backscatter together are not sufficient to explain the result, so there must be even more to the opposition surge. The unique capability of science to explain the natural world, shown over and over and over again during the last half millennium, provides confidence that a detailed theoretical understanding eventually will be attained.
Part of science’s success derives from its combination of experiment and theory. For now, however, the opposition surge is more in the domain of the former than the latter. In other words, translating any opposition surge observation into a useful description of the properties of the reflecting material requires controlled laboratory measurements of well characterized materials. They provide the basis for interpreting the observation.
If Dawn accomplishes the tricky measurements (which we will describe next month), scientists will compare the Cerealia Facula opposition surge with lab measurements of the opposition surge. As always in good science, to establish the details of the experiments, they will start by integrating the knowledge already available, including the tremendous trove of data Dawn has already collected -- spectra of neutrons, gamma rays, visible light and infrared light plus extensive color and stereo photography and gravity measurements. In the context of their understanding of physics, chemistry and geology throughout the solar system, scientists will determine not only the mixtures of chemicals to test but also the properties such as grain sizes and how densely packed the particles are. They will perform experiments then on many combinations of credible facular composition and properties. Comparing those results with Dawn’s findings, they will be able to elucidate more about what really is on the ground in that mesmerizing crater. For example, if they determine the salt crystals are small, that may mean that salty water had been on the ground and sublimated quickly in the vacuum of space. But if the salt came out of solution more slowly underground and was later pushed to the surface by other geological processes, the crystals would be larger.
It is an impressive demonstration of the power of science that we can navigate an interplanetary spaceship to a particular location high above the mysterious, lustrous landscape of a distant alien world and gain insight into some details that would be too fine for you to see even if you were standing on the ground. Using the best of science, Dawn is teasing every secret it can from a relict from the dawn of the solar system. On behalf of everyone who appreciates the majesty of the cosmos, our dedicated, virtuoso artist is adding exquisite touches to what is already a masterpiece.
Dawn is 31,400 miles (50,500 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.48 AU (324 million miles, or 521 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,430 times as far as the moon and 3.48 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 58 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PDT March 30, 2017
Dear Pedawntic Readers,
A sophisticated spaceship in orbit around an alien world has been firing its advanced ion engine to execute complex and elegant orbital acrobatics.
On assignment from Earth at dwarf planet Ceres, Dawn is performing like the ace flier that it is.
The spacecraft’s activities are part of an ambitious bonus goal the team has recently devised for the extended mission. Dawn will maneuver to a location exactly on the line connecting Ceres and the sun and take pictures and spectra there. Measuring the opposition surge we explained last month will help scientists gain insight into the microscopic nature of the famous bright material in Occator Crater. Flying to that special position and acquiring the pictures and spectra will consume most of the rest of the extended mission, which concludes on June 30.
This month, we will look at the probe’s intricate maneuvers. Next month, we will delve more into the opposition surge itself, and in April we will describe Dawn’s detailed plans for photography and spectroscopy. In May we will discuss further maneuvers that could provide a backup opportunity for observing the opposition surge in June.
First, however, it is worth recalling that this is not Dawn’s primary responsibility, which is to continue to measure cosmic rays in order to improve scientists’ ability to establish the atomic species down to about a yard (meter) underground. Sensing the space radiation requires the spacecraft to stay more than 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) above the dwarf planet that is its gravitational master. The gamma ray and neutron detector will be operated continuously as Dawn changes its orbit and then performs the new observations. The ongoing high-priority radiation measurements will not be affected by the new plans.
The principal objective of the orbital maneuvers is to swivel Dawn’s orbit around Ceres. Imagine looking down on Ceres’ north pole, with the sun far to the left. (To help your imagination, you might refer to this figure from last month. As we will explain in May, Dawn’s orbital plane is slowly rotating clockwise, according to plan, and it is now even closer to vertical than depicted in January. That does not affect the following discussion.) From your perspective, looking edge-on at Dawn’s orbit, its elliptical path looks like a line, just as does a coin seen from the edge. In its current orbit (labeled 6 in that figure), Dawn moves from the bottom to the top over the north pole. When it is over the south pole, on the other side of the orbit, it flies from the top of the figure back to the bottom. The purpose of the current maneuvering is to make Dawn travel instead from the left to the right over the north pole (and from the right to the left over the south pole). This is equivalent to rotating the plane of the orbit around the axis that extends through Ceres’ poles and up to Dawn’s altitude. From the sun’s perspective, Dawn starts by revolving counterclockwise and the orbit is face-on. We want to turn it so it is edge-on to the sun.
That may not sound very difficult. After all, it amounts mostly to turning right at the north pole or left at the south pole. Spaceships in science fiction do that all the time (although sometimes they turn right at the south pole). However, it turns out to be extremely difficult in reality, not to mention lacking the cool sounds. When going over the south pole, from the top of the figure to the bottom, the spacecraft has momentum in that direction. To turn, it needs to cancel that out and then develop momentum to the left. That requires a great deal of work. It is energetically expensive. Fortunately, the ever-resourceful flight team has an affordable way.
As we discuss this more, we will present three diagrams of the trajectory. It may be challenging to follow Dawn’s three-dimensional motion on two-dimensional figures, especially if you are not accustomed to reading such depictions. Don’t worry! The team has it all under control, and it works. But consider that however complicated the figures seem, designing and flying the maneuvers is somewhat more complicated. Nevertheless, if you want to try, it might help to try to reproduce Dawn’s movements with your finger as you read the text and study the illustrations. (And if the figures are not helpful for understanding the trajectory, they may at least serve as fun optical illusions, as they did for one member of the test audience.)
Suppose you are driving from north to south and want to turn east at an intersection. You have to decrease your southward (forward) velocity somehow; otherwise, you will continue moving in that direction. You also have to increase your eastward (left) velocity, which initially is zero. That means putting on the brakes and then turning the wheel and reaccelerating, which takes work. (If you’re a stunt driver in the movies, it also may mean making smoke come out near the tires.) With your car, there are two major forces at work: the engine and the friction between the wheels and the road. For a spacecraft, the forces available are the propulsion system and the gravity of other bodies (like moons). Ceres’ only moon is Dawn itself, and there are no other helpful gravitational forces, so it’s all up to the probe’s ion engine.
Dawn was not built to perform these new maneuvers. The main tank and the xenon propellant loaded in it shortly before the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral did not account for such an addition to the interplanetary itinerary. The plan was to travel from Earth past Mars to Vesta, enter orbit and maneuver around the protoplanet, then break out of orbit and travel to Ceres, slip into orbit, and maneuver there. Dawn has now done all that with great distinction and already moved around more while orbiting Ceres than originally planned. Indeed, the mission has accomplished far, far more propulsive flight than any other, but now its xenon supply is very low. Navigators needed an efficient way to swivel the spacecraft’s orbit, and that meant finding an efficient way to change the direction of its orbital motion.
An orbit is the perfect balance between the inward tug of gravity and the fundamental tendency of free objects to travel in a straight line. Orbital velocity thus depends on the strength of the gravitational pull. At low altitude, orbiting objects travel faster than at higher altitude. (We have considered this topic in some detail, including with examples, several times before.) Dawn is flying to a very high altitude, where Ceres’ grip will not be as strong so the orbital velocity will naturally be much lower and therefore easier to change. Then it will turn left and swoop back down for the photo op. Any hotshot spaceship pilot would be proud to fly the same profile.
In December 2016, Dawn reached extended mission orbit 3 (XMO3), which ranged in altitude between 4,670 miles (7,520 kilometers) and 5,810 miles (9,350 kilometers). Now the spacecraft is climbing, and it will peak at more than 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers) in early April when it will pivot the orbit almost 90 degrees. It will then glide down to about 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers) for the targeted observations.
The maneuvering will be conducted in four stages. The first part of the ion powered ascent was Feb. 22-26, and the next will be March 8-12 when the orbital position is optimal. Although the spacecraft will stop thrusting then at an altitude of 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers), it will have built up so much momentum that it will continue soaring upward for almost a month as Ceres’ gravitational attraction slows its down. (Dawn uses that pull as a means of putting on the brakes to reduce the forward momentum.) A third period of thrusting on April 3-14 at the apex of its arc will accomplish the turn. Dawn will then be in an orbit that will intersect the line between Occator Crater and the sun on April 29. (After turning, Dawn allows Ceres to do the work of accelerating it, as gravity brings the ship back down.)
This complex flight plan is different from all the prior powered flight, both at Vesta and at Ceres. Most of the orbit changes have been lovely spirals, and the ship rode the gravitational currents at Vesta to shift the orbital plane by a much smaller angle than it is working on now. Some of the graceful steps in this new choreography are especially delicate and require exquisite accuracy to reach just the right final trajectory. For the first time in almost two years, the spacecraft will need to take pictures of Ceres for the express purpose of helping navigators plot its progress. (In the intervening time, Dawn has taken more than 55,000 photos specifically to study the dwarf planet. Many of them also have been used for navigation.) Combining these "optical navigation" pictures with their other navigational techniques, the team will design a final, fourth stage of ion thrusting for April 22-24 to fine tune the orbit. We have described such trajectory correction maneuvers before. (It’s easier for you to chart the spacecraft’s progress than it is for the Dawn team. All you have to do is read the mission status reports.)
By the time it began ion thrusting last week, Dawn had successfully completed all of its assignments in XMO3. That included three photography sessions. In the last, the spacecraft used the primary and backup cameras simultaneously for the first time in the entire mission. In its extensive investigations of Vesta and Ceres, Dawn has taken more than 85,000 pictures, but all of them had been with only one camera powered on at a time, the other being held in reserve. In April we will discuss the reason for operating differently before leaving XMO3.
Dawn’s adventure has been long and its experiences manifold. In just a few days, the bold explorer will mark its second anniversary of arriving at Ceres. (That’s the second anniversary as reckoned by inhabitants of Earth. In contrast, for locals, the immigrant from distant Earth has been in residence for less than half a Cerean year, although more than 1,900 Cerean days.) In 2011-2012, the probe spent almost 14 months in orbit around the giant protoplanet Vesta, the second largest object in the main asteroid belt. The only craft ever to orbit two alien destinations, it is a denizen of deep space. In its nearly 9.5-year solar system journey, Dawn has traveled 3.7 billion miles (6.0 billion kilometers). For most of this time, the spaceship has been in orbit around the sun, just as its erstwhile home Earth is. Now it has been in orbit around remote worlds for a third of its total time in space. And for you numerologists, March 5 will mark Dawn’s being in orbit around its targets for pi years. (Happy pi-th anniversary.)
Readers on or near Earth who appreciate following such an extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition can take advantage of an opportunity this week to do a little celestial navigation of their own. On March 2, the moon will serve as a helpful signpost to locate the faraway ship on the interplanetary seas. From our terrestrial viewpoint, the moon will move very close to Dawn’s location in the sky. The specifics, of course, depend on your exact location. For many afternoon sky watchers in North America, the moon will come to within about a degree, or two lunar diameters, of Dawn. As viewed by some observers in South America, the moon will pass directly in front of Dawn. For most Earthlings, when the moon rises on the morning of March 2, it will be north and east of Dawn. During the day, the moon will gradually drift closer and, from many locations, pass the spacecraft and the dwarf planet it orbits. The angle separating them will be less than the width of your palm at arm’s length, providing a handy way to find our planet’s emissary. Although Dawn and Ceres will appear to be near the moon, they will not be close to it at all. The distant spacecraft will be more than 1,300 times farther away than the moon by then (and well over one million times farther than the International Space Station) and quite invisible. But your correspondent invites you to gaze in that direction as you raise a saluting hand to humankind’s insatiable appetite for knowledge, irresistible drive for exploration, passion for adventure, and longing to know the cosmos.
Dawn is 7,300 miles (11,800 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.19 AU (296 million miles, or 477 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,280 times as far as the moon and 3.22 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 53 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:30 p.m. PST February 27, 2017
A deep-space robotic emissary from Earth is continuing to carry out its extraordinary mission at a distant dwarf planet.
Orbiting high above Ceres, the sophisticated Dawn spacecraft is hard at work unveiling the secrets of the exotic alien world that has been its home for almost two years.
Dawn’s primary objective in this sixth orbital phase at Ceres (known as extended mission orbit 3, XMO3 or "this sixth orbital phase at Ceres") is to record cosmic rays. Doing so will allow scientists to remove that "noise" from the nuclear radiation measurements performed during the eight months Dawn operated in a low, tight orbit around Ceres. The result will be a cleaner signal, revealing even more about the atomic constituents down to about a yard (meter) underground. As we will see below, in addition to this ongoing investigation, soon the adventurer will begin pursuing a new objective in its exploration of Ceres.
With its uniquely capable ion propulsion system, Dawn has flown to orbits with widely varying characteristics. In contrast to the previous five observation orbits (and all the observation orbits at Vesta), XMO3 is elliptical. Over the course of almost eight days, the spacecraft sails from a height of about 4,670 miles (7,520 kilometers) up to almost 5,810 miles (9,350 kilometers) and back down. Dutifully following principles discovered by Johannes Kepler at the beginning of the 17th century and explained by Isaac Newton at the end of that century, Dawn’s speed over this range of altitudes varies from 210 mph (330 kilometers per hour) when it is closest to Ceres to 170 mph (270 kilometers per hour) when it is farthest. Yesterday afternoon, the craft was at its highest for the current orbit. During the day today, the ship will descend from 5,790 miles (9,310 kilometers) to 5,550 miles (8,930 kilometers). As it does so, Ceres’ gravity will gradually accelerate it from 170 mph (273 kilometers per hour) to 177 mph (285 kilometers per hour). (Usually we round the orbital velocity to the nearest multiple of 10. In this case, however, to show the change during one day, the values presented are more precise.)
As we saw last month, the angle of XMO3 to the sun presents an opportunity to gain a new perspective on Ceres, with sunlight coming from a different angle. (We include the same figure here, because we will refer to it more below.) Last week, Dawn took advantage of that opportunity, seeing the alien landscapes in a new light as it took pictures for the first time since October.
Dawn takes more than a week to revolve around Ceres, but Ceres turns on its axis in just nine hours. Because Dawn moves through only a small segment of its orbit in one Cerean day, it is almost as if the spacecraft hovers in place as the dwarf planet pirouettes beneath it. During one such period on Jan. 27, Dawn’s high perch moved only from 11°N to 12°S latitude as Ceres presented her full range of longitudes to the explorer’s watchful eye. This made it very convenient to take pictures and visible spectra as the scenery helpfully paraded by. (The spacecraft was high enough to see much farther north and south than the latitudes immediately beneath it.) Dawn will make similar observations again twice in February.
As Dawn was expertly executing the elegant, complex spiral ascent from XMO2 to XMO3 in November, the flight team considered it to be the final choreography in the venerable probe’s multi-act grand interplanetary performance. By then, Dawn had already far exceeded all of its original objectives at Vesta and Ceres, and the last of the new scientific goals could be met in XMO3, the end of the encore. The primary consideration was to keep Dawn high enough to measure cosmic rays, meaning it needed to stay above about 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers). There was no justification or motivation to go anywhere else. Well, that’s the way it was in November anyway. This is January. And now it’s (almost) time for a previously unanticipated new act, XMO4.
Always looking for ways to squeeze as much out of the mission as possible, the team has now devised a new and challenging investigation. It will consume the next five months (and much of the next five Dawn Journals). We begin this month with an overview, but follow along each month as we present the full story, including a detailed explanation of the underlying science, the observations themselves and the remarkable orbital maneuvering entirely unlike anything Dawn has done before. (You can also follow along with your correspondent’s uncharacteristically brief and more frequent mission status updates.)
From the XMO3 vantage point, with sunlight coming from the side, Ceres is gibbous and looks closer to a half moon than full. The new objective is to peer at Ceres when the sun is directly behind Dawn. This would be the same as looking at a full moon. (In the figure above, it would be like photographing Ceres from somewhere on the dashed line that points to the distant sun.)
While Dawn obtained pictures from near the line to the sun in its first Ceres orbit, there is a special importance to being even closer to that line. Let’s see why that alignment is valuable.
Most materials reflect light differently at different angles. You can investigate this yourself (and it’s probably easier to do at home than it is in orbit around a remote dwarf planet). To make it simpler, take some object that is relatively uniform (but with a matte finish, not a mirror-like finish) and vary the angles at which light hits it and from which you look at it. You may see that it appears dimmer or brighter as the angles change. It turns out that this effect may be used to help infer the nature of the reflecting material. (For the purposes of this exercise, if you can hold the angle of the object relative to your gaze fixed, and vary only the angle of the illumination, that’s best. But don’t worry about the details. Conducting this experiment represents only a small part of your final grade.)
Now when scientists carefully measure the reflected light under controlled conditions, they find that the intensity changes quite gradually over a wide range of angles. In other words, the apparent brightness of an object does not vary dramatically as the geometry changes. However, when the source of the illumination gets very close to being directly behind the observer, the reflection may become quite a bit stronger. (If you test this, of course, you have to ensure your shadow doesn’t interfere with the observation. Vampires don’t worry about this, and we’ll explain below why Dawn needn’t either.)
If you (or a helpful scientist friend of yours) measure how bright a partial moon is and then use that information to calculate how bright the full moon will be, you will wind up with an answer that’s too small. The full moon is significantly brighter than would be expected based on how lunar soil reflects light at other angles. (Of course, you will have to account for the fact that there is more illuminated area on a full moon, but this curious optical behavior is different. Here we are describing how the brightness of any given patch of ground changes.)
A full moon occurs when the moon and sun are in opposite directions from Earth’s perspective. That alignment is known as opposition. That is, an astronomical body (like the moon or a planet) is in opposition when the observer (you) is right in between it and the source of illumination (the sun), so all three are on a straight line. And because the brightness takes such a steep and unexpected jump there, this phenomenon is known as the opposition surge.
The observed magnitude of the opposition surge can reveal some of the nature of the illuminated object on much, much finer scales than are visible in photos. Knowing the degree to which the reflection strengthens at very small angles allows scientists to ascertain (or, at least, constrain) the texture of materials on planetary surfaces even at the microscopic level. If they are fortunate enough to have measurements of the reflectivity at different angles for a region on an airless solar system body (atmospheres complicate it too much), they compare them with laboratory measurements on candidate materials to determine which ones give the best match for the properties.
Dawn has already measured the light reflected over a wide range of angles, as is clear from the figure above showing the orbits. But the strongest discrimination among different textures relies on measuring the opposition surge. That is Dawn’s next objective, a bonus in the bonus extended mission.
You can see from the diagram that measuring the opposition surge will require a very large change in the plane of Dawn’s orbit. Shifting the plane of a spacecraft’s orbit can be energetically very, very expensive. (We will discuss this more next month.) Fortunately, the combination of the unique capabilities provided by the ion propulsion system and the ever-creative team makes it affordable.
Powered by an insatiable appetite for new knowledge, Dawn will begin ion thrusting on Feb. 23. After very complex maneuvers, it will be rewarded at the end of April with a view of a full Ceres from an altitude of around 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers), about the height of GPS satellites above Earth. (That will be about 50 percent higher than the first science orbit, which is labeled as line 1 in the figure.) There are many daunting challenges in reaching XMO4 and measuring the opposition surge. Even though it is a recently added bonus, and the success of the extended mission does not depend on it, mission planners have already designed a backup opportunity in case the first attempt does not yield the desired data. The second window is late in June, allowing the spacecraft time to transmit its findings to Earth before the extended mission concludes at the end of that month.
For technical reasons, the measurements need to be made from a high altitude, and throughout the complex maneuvering to get there, Dawn will remain high enough to monitor cosmic rays. Ceres will appear to be around five times the width of the full moon we see from Earth. It will be about 500 pixels in diameter in Dawn’s camera, and more than 180,000 pixels will show light reflected from the ground. Of greatest scientific interest in the photographs will be just a handful of pixels that show the famous bright material in Occator Crater, known as Cerealia Facula and clearly visible in the picture above. Scientists will observe how those pixels surge in brightness over a narrow range of angles as Dawn’s XMO4 orbital motion takes it into opposition, exactly between Occator and the sun. Of course, the pictures also will provide information on how the widespread dark material covering most of the ground everywhere else on Ceres changes in brightness (or, if you prefer, in dimness). But the big reward here would be insight into the details of Cerealia Facula. Comparing the opposition surges with laboratory measurements may reveal characteristics that cannot be discerned any other way save direct sampling, which is far beyond Dawn’s capability (and authority). For example, scientists may be able to estimate the size of the salt crystals that make up the bright material, and that would help establish their geological history, including whether they formed underground or on the surface. We will discuss this more in March.
Most of the data on opposition surges on solar system objects use terrestrial observations, with astronomers waiting until Earth and the target happen to move into the necessary alignment with the sun. In those cases, the surge is averaged over the entire body, because the target is usually too far away to discern any details. Therefore, it is very difficult to learn about specific features when observing from near Earth. Few spacecraft have actively maneuvered to acquire such data because, as we alluded to above and will see next month, it is too difficult, especially at a massive body like Ceres. The recognition that Dawn might be able to complete this challenging measurement for a region of particular interest represents an important possibility for the mission to discover more about this intriguing dwarf planet’s geology.
Meeting the scientific goal will require a careful and quantitative analysis of the pixels, but the images of a fully illuminated Ceres will be visually appealing as well. Nevertheless, you are cautioned to avoid developing a mistaken notion about the view. (For that matter, you are cautioned to avoid developing mistaken notions about anything.) You might think (and some readers wondered about this in a different phase of the mission) that with Dawn being between the sun and Ceres (and not being a vampire), the spacecraft’s shadow might be visible in the pictures. It would look really cool if it were (although it also would interfere with the measurement of the opposition surge by introducing another factor into how the brightness changes). There will be no shadow. The spacecraft will simply be too high. Imagine you’re standing in Occator Crater, either wearing your spacesuit while engaged in a thrilling exploration of a mysterious and captivating extraterrestrial site or perhaps instead while you’re indoors enjoying some of the colony’s specially salted Cerean savory snacks, famous throughout the solar system. In any case, the distant sun you see would be a little more than one-third the size that it looks from Earth, comparable to a soccer ball at 213 feet (65 meters). Dawn would be 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers) overhead. Although it’s one of the largest interplanetary spacecraft ever to take flight, with a wingspan of 65 feet (20 meters), it would be much too small for you to see at all without a telescope and would block an undetectably small amount of sunlight. It would appear smaller than a soccer ball seen from 135 miles (220 kilometers). Therefore, no shadow will be cast, the measurement will not be compromised by the spacecraft blocking some of the light reaching the ground and the pictures will not display any evidence of the photographer.
Even as the team was formulating plans for this ambitious new campaign, they successfully dealt with a glitch on the spacecraft this month. When a routine communications session with the Deep Space Network began on Jan. 17, controllers discovered that Dawn had previously entered its safe mode, a standard response the craft uses when it encounters conditions its programming and logic cannot accommodate. The main computer issues instructions to reconfigure systems, broadcasts a special radio signal through one of the antennas and then patiently awaits help from humans on a faraway planet (or anyone else who happens to lend assistance). The team soon determined what had occurred. Since it left Earth, Dawn has performed calculations five times per second about its location and speed in the solar system, whether in orbit around the sun, Vesta or Ceres. (Perhaps you do the same on your deep-space voyages.) However, it ran into difficulty in those calculations on Jan. 14 for the first time in more than nine years of interplanetary travel. To ensure the problematic calculations did not cause the ship to take any unsafe actions, it put itself into safe mode. Engineers have confirmed that the problem was in software, not hardware and not even a cosmic ray strike, which has occasionally triggered safe mode, most recently in September 2014.
Mission controllers guided the spacecraft out of safe mode within two days and finished returning all systems to their standard configurations shortly thereafter. Dawn was shipshape the subsequent week and resumed its scientific duties. When it activated safe mode, the computer correctly powered off the gamma ray and neutron detector, which had been measuring the cosmic rays, as we described above. The time that the instrument was off will be inconsequential, however, because there is more than enough time in the extended mission to acquire all the desired measurements.
The extended mission has already proven to be extremely productive, yielding a great deal of new data on this ancient world. But there is still more to look forward to as the veteran explorer prepares for a new and adventurous phase of its extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition.
Dawn is 5,650 miles (9,100 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.87 AU (266 million miles, or 429 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,135 times as far as the moon and 2.91 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 48 minutes to make the round trip.
Dawn is concluding a remarkable year of exploring dwarf planet Ceres. At the beginning of 2016, the spacecraft was still a newcomer to its lowest altitude orbit (the fourth since arriving at Ceres in March 2015), and the flight team was looking forward to about three months of exciting work there to uncover more of the alien world’s mysteries.
As it turned out, Dawn spent more than eight months conducting an exceptionally rewarding campaign of photography and other investigations, providing a richly detailed, comprehensive look at the extraterrestrial landscapes and garnering an extraordinary bounty of data. In September, the craft took advantage of its advanced ion propulsion system to fly to a new orbit from which it performed still more unique observations in October. Last month, the ship took flight again, and now it is concluding 2016 in its sixth science orbit.
Dawn is in an elliptical orbit, sailing from about 4,670 miles (7,520 kilometers) up to up to almost 5,810 miles (9,350 kilometers) and back down. It takes nearly eight days to complete each orbital loop. Flying this high above Ceres allows Dawn to record cosmic rays to enhance the nuclear spectra it acquired at low altitude, improving the measurements of atomic constituents down to about a yard (meter) underground.
The spacecraft has been collecting cosmic ray data continuously since reaching this orbit (known to the Dawn team, imaginative readers of last month’s Dawn Journal and now you as extended mission orbit 3, or XMO3). These measurements will continue until the end of the extended mission in June. But there is more in store for the indefatigable adventurer than monitoring space radiation.
Based on studies of Dawn’s extensive inspections of Ceres so far, scientists want to see certain sites at new angles and under different illumination conditions. Next month, Dawn will begin a new campaign of photography and visible spectroscopy. All of Dawn’s five previous science orbits had different orientations from the sun. And now XMO3 will provide another unique perspective on the dwarf planet's terrain. The figure below shows what the orientation will be when the explorer turns its gaze once again on Ceres for the first set of new observations on Jan. 27, 2017.
We mentioned in the figure caption that the alignments are simplified. One of the simplifications is that some of the orbits covered a range of angles. There is a well-understood and fully predictable natural tendency for the angle to increase. In some phases of the mission, the flight team allows that, and in others they do not, depending on what is needed for the best scientific return. At the lowest altitude (orbit 4 in the diagram, and sometimes known as LAMO, XMO1 or "the lowest orbit"), navigators held the orbit at a fixed orientation. Had they not done so, it would have changed quite dramatically over the course of the eight months Dawn was there. For XMO3, the team has decided not to keep the angle constant. Therefore, later observations will provide still different views. We will return to this topic in a few months.
We have described before how places that remain shadowed throughout the Cerean year can trap water molecules. Dawn’s pictures have revealed well over 600 craters high in the northern hemisphere that are permanently in darkness, covering more than 800 square miles (more than 2,000 square kilometers). (It has not been possible to make as thorough a census of the southern hemisphere, because it has been fall and winter there during most of Dawn’s studies, so some areas were not lit well enough. Now that spring has come, new photography will tell us more.)
Dawn peered into craters to see what was hidden on the dark floors. Long exposures could reveal hints of the scenery using the faint light reflected from crater walls. In 10 of the craters, scientists found bright deposits. In one of those craters, the reflective material extends beyond the permanent shadow and so is occasionally illuminated, albeit still with the sun very low on the horizon. And sure enough, right there, Dawn’s infrared mapping spectrometer found the characteristic fingerprint of ice. These shadowed crater floors accumulate water that happens to land there, preserving it in a deep freeze that may be colder than -260°F (-163°C). Readers are invited to formulate their own business plans for how best to utilize that precious resource.
Jan. 1 is the anniversary of the discovery of Ceres. When Giuseppe Piazzi spotted the faint smudge of light in his telescope that night in 1801, he did not know that it would be known as a planet for almost two generations. (After all, he was an astronomer and mathematician, not a clairvoyant.) And he could never have imagined that more than two centuries later (by which time Ceres was known as a dwarf planet, reflecting progress in scientific knowledge), humankind would undertake an ambitious expedition to explore it, dispatching a sophisticated ship to take up residence at that distant and mysterious place. What Piazzi discovered was a lovely jewel set against the deep blackness of space and surrounded by myriad other gleaming stellar jewels. What Dawn has discovered is a unique and fascinating world of complex geology, composed of rock and ice and salt, with exotic and beautiful scenery. And as Dawn continues to build upon Piazzi’s legacy, unveiling Ceres’ secrets, everyone who has ever looked in wonder at the night sky, everyone who has ever hungered for new understanding, everyone who has ever felt the lure of a thrilling adventure far from home and everyone who has ever yearned to know the cosmos will share in the rewards.
Dawn is 5,640 miles (9,070 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.43 AU (226 million miles, or 364 million kilometers) from Earth, or 915 times as far as the moon and 2.48 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 41 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PST December 29, 2016
Blue rope lights adorn Dawn mission control at JPL, but not because the flight team is in the holiday spirit (although they are in the holiday spirit).
The felicitous display is more than decorative. The illumination indicates that the interplanetary spacecraft is thrusting with one of its ion engines, which emit a lovely, soft bluish glow in the forbidding depths of space. Dawn is completing another elegant spiral around dwarf planet Ceres, maneuvering to its sixth science orbit.
Dawn’s ion propulsion system has allowed the probe to accomplish a mission unlike any other, orbiting two distant extraterrestrial destinations. Even more than that, Dawn has taken advantage of the exceptional efficiency of its ion engines to fly to orbits at different altitudes and orientations while at Vesta and at Ceres, gaining the best perspectives for its photography and other scientific investigations.
Dawn has thrust for a total of 5.7 years during its deep-space adventure. All that powered flight has imparted a change in the ship’s velocity of 25,000 mph (40,000 kilometers per hour). As we have seen, this is not the spacecraft’s actual speed, but it is a convenient measure of the effect of its propulsive work. Reaching Earth orbit requires only about 17,000 mph (less than 28,000 kilometers per hour). In fact, Dawn’s gentle ion engines have delivered almost 98 percent of the change in speed that its powerful Delta 7925H-9.5 rocket provided. With nine external rocket engines and a core consisting of a first stage, a second stage and a third stage, the Delta boosted Dawn by 25,640 mph (41,260 kilometers per hour) from Cape Canaveral out of Earth orbit and onto its interplanetary trajectory, after which the remarkable ion engines took over. No other spacecraft has accomplished such a large velocity change under its own power. (The previous record holder, Deep Space 1, achieved 9,600 mph, or 15,000 kilometers per hour.)
Early this year, we were highly confident Dawn would conclude its operational lifetime in its fourth orbit at Ceres (and remain there long after). But unexpectedly healthy and with an extension from NASA, Dawn is continuing its ambitious mission. After completing all of its tasks in its fifth scientific phase at Ceres, Dawn is pursuing new objectives by flying to another orbit for still more discoveries. Although we never anticipated adding a row to the table of Dawn’s orbits, last presented in December 2015, we now have an updated version.
in ft (m)
distance of a soccer ball
|1||RC3||04.23.15 – 05.09.15||8,400
|3||HAMO||08.17.15 – 10.23.15||915
|12.16.15 – 09.02.16||240
|5||XMO2||10.16.16 – 11.04.16||920
As with the obscure Dawn code names for other orbits, this fifth orbit’s name requires some explanation. The extended mission is devoted to undertaking activities not envisioned in the prime mission. That began with two extra months in the fourth mapping orbit performing many new observations, but because it was then the extended mission, that orbit was designated extended mission orbit 1, or XMO1. (It should have been EMO1, of course, but the team’s spellchecker was offline on July 1, the day the extended mission started.) Therefore, the next orbit was XMO2. Dawn left XMO2 on Nov. 4, and we leave it to readers’ imaginations to devise a name for the orbit the spacecraft is now maneuvering to.
Surprisingly, Dawn is flying higher to enhance part of the scientific investigation that motivated going to the lowest orbit. We have explained before that Dawn’s objective in powering its way down to the fourth mapping orbit was to make the most accurate measurements possible of gravity and of nuclear radiation emitted by the dwarf planet.
For more than eight months, the explorer orbited closer to the alien world than the International Space Station is to Earth, and the gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra it acquired are outstanding, significantly exceeding all expectations. But ever-creative scientists have recognized that even with that tremendous wealth of data, Dawn can do still better. Let’s look at this more carefully and consider an example to resolve the paradox of how going higher can yield an improvement.
The gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) reveals some of Ceres’ atomic constituents down to about a yard (meter) underground. The principal limitation in analyzing these spectra is "noise." In fact, noise limits the achievable accuracy of many scientific measurements. It isn’t necessarily the kind of noise that you hear from loud machinery (nor from the mouth of your unhelpful parent, inattentive progeny or boring and verbose coworker), but all natural systems have something similar. Physical processes other than the ones of interest make unwanted contributions to the measurements. The part of a measurement scientists want is called the "signal." The part of a measurement scientists don’t want is called the "noise." The quality of a measurement may be characterized by comparing the strength of the signal to the strength of the noise. (This metric is called the "signal to noise ratio" by people who like to use jargon like "signal to noise ratio.")
We have discussed that cosmic rays, radiation that pervades space, strike atomic nuclei on Ceres, creating the signals that GRaND measures. Remaining at low altitude would have allowed Dawn to enhance its measurement of the Cerean nuclear signal. But scientists determined that an even better way to improve the spectra than to increase the signal is to decrease the noise. GRaND’s noise is a result of cosmic rays impinging directly on the instrument itself and on nearby parts of the spacecraft. With a more thorough measurement of the noise from cosmic rays, scientists will be able to mathematically remove that component of the low altitude measurements, leaving a clearer signal.
For an illustration of all this, suppose you want to hear the words of a song. The words are the signal and the instruments are the noise. (This is a scientific discussion, not a musical one.) It could be that the instruments are so loud and distracting that you can’t make the words out easily.
You might try turning up the volume, because that increases the signal, but it increases the noise as well. If the performance is live, you might even try to position yourself closer to the singer, perhaps making the signal stronger without increasing the noise too much. (Other alternatives are simply to Google the song or ask the singer for a copy of the lyrics, but those methods would ruin this example.)
If you’re doing this in the 21st century (or later), there’s another trick you can employ, taking advantage of computer processing. Suppose you had a recording of the singing with the instruments and then obtained separate recordings of the instruments. You could subtract the musical sounds that constitute the noise, removing the contributions from both guitars, the drums, the harp, both ukuleles, the kazoo and all the theremins. And when you eliminate the noise of the instruments, what remains is the signal of the words, making them much more intelligible.
To obtain a better measure of the noise, Dawn needs to go to higher altitude, where GRaND will no longer detect Ceres. It will make detailed measurements of cosmic ray noise, which scientists then will subtract from their measurements at low altitude, where GRaND observed Ceres signal plus cosmic ray noise. The powerful capability to raise its orbit so much affords Dawn the valuable opportunity to gain greater insight into the atomic composition. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but essentially this method will help Dawn hear Ceres’ nuclear song more clearly.
To travel from one orbit to another, the sophisticated explorer has followed complex spiral routes. We have discussed the nature of these trajectories quite a bit, including how the operations team designs and flies them. But now they are using a slightly different method.
Those of you at Ceres who monitor the ship’s progress probably wouldn’t notice a difference in the type of trajectory. And the rest of you on Earth and elsewhere who keep track through our mission status updates also would not detect anything unusual in the ascent profile (to the extent that a spacecraft using ion propulsion to spiral around a dwarf planet is usual). But celestial navigators are now enjoying their use of a method they whimsically call local maximal energy spiral feedback control.
The details of the new technique are not as important for our discussion here as one of the consequences: Dawn’s next orbit will not be nearly as circular as any of its other orbits at Ceres (or at Vesta). Following the conclusion of this spiral ascent on Dec. 5, navigators will refine their computations of the orbit, and we will describe the details near the end of the month. We will see that as the spacecraft follows its elliptical loops around Ceres, each taking about a week, the altitude will vary smoothly, dipping below 4,700 miles (7,600 kilometers) and going above 5,700 miles (9,200 kilometers). Such a profile meets the mission’s needs, because as long as the craft stays higher than about 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers), it can make the planned recordings of the cacophonous cosmic rays. We will present other plans for this next phase of the mission as well, including photography, in an upcoming Dawn Journal.
As Dawn continues its work at Ceres, the dwarf planet continues its stately 4.6-year-long orbit around the sun, carrying Earth’s robotic ambassador with it. Ceres follows an elliptical path around the sun (see, for example, this discussion, including the table). In fact, all orbits, including Earth’s, are ellipses. Ceres’ orbit is more elliptical than Earth’s but not as much as some of the other planets. The shape of Ceres’ orbit is between that of Saturn (which is more circular) and Mars (which is more elliptical). (Of course, Ceres’ orbit is larger than Mars’ and smaller than Saturn’s, but here we are describing how much each orbit deviates from a perfect circle.)
When Ceres tenderly took Dawn into its gravitational embrace in March 2015, they were 2.87 AU (267 million miles, or 429 million kilometers) from the sun. In January 2016, we mentioned that Ceres had reached its aphelion, or greatest distance from the sun, at 2.98 AU (277 million miles, or 445 million kilometers). Today at 2.85 AU (265 million miles, or 427 million kilometers), Ceres is closer to the sun than at any time since Dawn arrived, and the heliocentric distance will gradually decrease further throughout the extended mission. (If the number of numbers is overwhelming here, 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 relative distances.)
Another consequence of orbiting the sun is the progression of seasons. Right on schedule, as we boldly predicted in August 2015, Nov. 13 was the equinox on Ceres, marking the beginning of northern hemisphere autumn and southern hemisphere spring. Although it is celebrated on Ceres with less zeal than on Earth, it is fundamentally the same: the sun was directly over the equator that day, and now it is moving farther south. It takes Ceres so long to orbit the sun that this season will last until Dec. 22, 2017.
A celebration that might occur on Ceres (and which you, loyal Dawnophile, are welcome to attend) would honor Dawn itself. Although the spacecraft completed its ninth terrestrial year of spaceflight in September, on Dec. 12, it will have been two Cerean years since Dawn left Earth for its interplanetary journey. Be sure to attend in order to learn how a dawnniversary is commemorated in that part of the solar system.
Although a year on Ceres lasts much longer than on Earth, 2016 is an unusually long year on our home planet. Not only was a leap day included, but a leap second will be added at the very end of the year to keep celestial navigators’ clocks in sync with nature. The Dawn team already has accounted for the extra second in the intricate plans formulated for the spacecraft. And at that second, on Dec. 31 at 23:59:60, we will be able to look back on 366 days and one second, an especially full and gratifying year in this remarkable deep-space expedition. But we needn’t wait. Even now, as mission control is bathed in a lovely glow, the members of the team as well as space enthusiasts everywhere are aglow with the thrill of new knowledge, the excitement of a daring, noble adventure and the anticipation of more to come.
Dawn is 3,150 miles (5,070 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.08 AU (194 million miles, or 312 million kilometers) from Earth, or 770 times as far as the moon and 2.11 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 35 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PST November 28, 2016
Dawn has just completed another outstandingly successful observation campaign at Ceres.
Far, far from Earth, the spacecraft has been making measurements at the alien world that were not even imagined until a few months ago. Once again, the experienced explorer has performed its complex assignments with distinction.
When Dawn arrived at Ceres in March 2015, becoming the first spacecraft to reach a dwarf planet, it was looking ahead to a very ambitious year of discovery from four different orbital altitudes. The great benefit of being able to enter orbit rather than fly by is that Dawn can scrutinize its subject over an extended period to develop a detailed, intimate portrait. Taking advantage of the ship’s ability to maneuver with its advanced ion propulsion system, mission planners had carefully selected the four orbits to enable a wide range of measurements.
By February of this year, Dawn had exceeded every one of its original mission objectives and was still going strong, accomplishing many new goals. Nevertheless, no one (at least, no one who was well informed) expected that the probe would complete its new assignments and yet still have the capability to maneuver to a fifth orbit and then undertake even more new observations. But that is exactly what occurred.
After more than eight months orbiting only 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the strange terrain of rock, ice and salt, Dawn ignited one of its ion engines on Sept. 2. By Oct. 6, when it had completed its graceful ascent, Dawn had made 93 spiral loops, reaching an orbit 920 miles (1,480 kilometers) high. From there, revolving once every 18.9 hours, the spacecraft has executed its new program of investigations.
With observations of Ceres from about the same altitude as a year ago in Dawn’s third mapping orbit, scientists will scour the expansive terrain, looking for changes. The most likely change is the presence of new, small craters. Everything in the solar system (including your planetary residence) is subject to strikes from rocks that orbit the sun. Ceres lives in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, a particularly rough neighborhood, and being the largest resident there (by far) doesn’t give it any special protection or immunity. In fact, being the largest resident also makes Ceres the largest target.
In addition to remapping Ceres with all of the camera’s color filters, the flight team has given Dawn other tasks. Controlling a sophisticated interplanetary spacecraft conducting complex operations so very far from Earth is never easy (but it’s always incredibly cool). There have been many challenges throughout this ambitious mission, quite unlike any ever undertaken. One of the significant ones was observing specific targets of interest from low altitude. We have explained that orbiting so close to the ground, the spacecraft’s motion was quite difficult to predict with sufficient accuracy far enough in advance to guide the craft so that the instruments’ narrow fields of view would hit specific features. Dawn was designed to map uncharted worlds, not to conduct targeted observations.
The difficulty was compounded by the loss in 2010 and 2012 of two of the four reaction wheels, used for controlling the probe’s orientation. An important side effect of the nudges from the small hydrazine-fueled jets of the reaction control system (even in combination with the two operable reaction wheels in hybrid control mode) was tiny distortions in the spacecraft’s orbital trajectory. The cumulative effect of many jet firings over days and weeks was enough to make it quite challenging to ensure the sensors could spot the targets as Dawn sped around the rapidly rotating orb beneath it.
This is not as difficult at higher altitude both because Dawn does not need to use its jets as often and because the instruments take in a wider area. As a result, the explorer has been better able to catch sight of preselected geological features, and it has acquired valuable new data.
Dawn also has studied selected sites at several times of the Cerean day. Mission planners may determine, for example, that if Dawn points not straight down on a particular orbit at a particular time but rather partially to the side, a certain crater could be spotted soon after Ceres’ nine-hour daily rotation has brought it into sunlight. In other words, it would be early in the morning at the crater when Dawn sees it, providing a nice dawn view. On another orbital revolution, Dawn might point in a different direction to see the same location longer after it has come into sunlight (that is, longer after sunrise), so from that same crater’s point of view, it is later in the day (albeit on a different day).
The spacecraft has done more than look at some special locations at different times of the Cerean day, corresponding to different lighting conditions. In taking pictures for a new map of Ceres this month, everywhere Dawn looked, the illumination was different from the photographs for the maps it compiled in its previous orbits. The orbit now is oriented at a different angle from the sun.
When the interplanetary adventurer was at Vesta, we described the orientation of the orbits in words. Thanks to changes in the Dawn Journal site since then, now we can present a picture showing that the scenery beneath Dawn has been illuminated from a different angle at each orbital altitude. And now in the fifth orbit, by seeing the sights from the same height as in the third mapping orbit but with different lighting, we gain a new perspective on the alien terrain.
In addition to all of its other work this month, the sophisticated robot has continued some specialized measurements it began at lower altitude. Being higher up does not cause as much of a reduction in the sharpness of some pictures as you might think. Held in a looser gravitational grip, Dawn’s orbital velocity is lower at higher altitude. As a result, observations that require a long exposure are not affected as much by the spacecraft’s movement. That’s helpful for some of the spectra and photographs. For example, Dawn has used its camera to peer into craters near the north and south poles that are in shadow continuously, every Cerean day of the Cerean year. These special locations might trap water molecules that escape from elsewhere on Ceres where it is too warm for them. With the benefits of a wider view from a higher altitude and a more predictable orbital path, Dawn’s coverage this month of these intriguing areas, faintly illuminated by sunlight reflected from crater walls, has been more complete than at lower altitude.
This fifth Ceres campaign was intricate and intensive, but it stayed right on the tight schedule. Dawn began collecting data as planned on Oct. 16 and finished transmitting its findings to Earth on Oct. 29. And it was exceedingly productive, yielding almost 3,000 photographs plus a great many infrared spectra and visible spectra containing a wealth of new information about Ceres.
This week controllers are going to check out the backup camera, as they do twice a year to confirm that it is still healthy and ready to take over should the primary camera develop a problem. Nevertheless, the primary camera remains fully functional. The team also is planning to switch to the backup set of reaction control system thrusters. Dawn has flown for so many years without a full complement of reaction wheels that these hydrazine thrusters have been used far more than anticipated when the ship was designed. They are healthy, but ever-cautious engineers do not want to overuse them.
Dawn’s work in this fifth orbit is part of a comprehensive plan for exploring Ceres as thoroughly as possible. Surprising though it may be, we will see next month that scientists have determined that there is even more to learn about Ceres by flying to a higher altitude. So now that Dawn has accomplished all of its objectives for this phase of the mission, it is about to begin another month of maneuvering. On Nov. 4, the spaceship will once again power on ion engine #2 and start another spiral to a sixth orbital observing post.
As Earth and Ceres (accompanied by Dawn) follow their independent orbits around the sun, the distance between them is constantly changing. On Oct. 22, they were at their smallest separation in the 3.5 years from June 2014 to Dec. 2017. On that date, Dawn was a mere 1.900 AU (176.6 million miles, or 284.2 million kilometers) from its first solar system residence. Dawn never loses track of the rest of its team, still stationed on that faraway planet. But after many years of interplanetary travels and more than a year at Vesta, the denizen of deep space is now a devoted companion of Ceres, and that is where it focuses its attention. And it has more work to do as it seeks still greater insights into the nature of its mysterious and exotic home.
Dawn is 920 miles (1,480 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 1.91 AU (178 million miles, or 286 million kilometers) from Earth, or 705 times as far as the moon and 1.93 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 32 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
2:30 p.m. PDT October 31, 2016
P.S. Now that this Dawn Journal is complete, your correspondent can turn his attention to getting into costume for Halloween. This year, he will be disguised as someone who knew all along that Dawn would engage in a productive and innovative extended mission at Ceres. Just imagine what a great time the trick-or-treaters are going to have when they visit his home!
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