Blogs by Marc Rayman

Blogs by Marc Rayman

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.

This view of Ceres shows some bright material that is not confined to “spots.”

Dear Descendawnts,

Flying on a blue-green ray of xenon ions, Dawn is gracefully descending toward dwarf planet Ceres. Even as Dawn prepares for a sumptuous new feast in its next mapping orbit, scientists are continuing to delight in the delicacies Ceres has already served. With a wonderfully rich bounty of pictures and other observations already secured, the explorer is now on its way to an even better vantage point.

Dawn Survey Orbit Image 31 This image, taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, shows dwarf planet Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). The image, with a resolution of 1,400 feet (410 meters) per pixel, was taken on June 25, 2015.
Dawn was in its second mapping orbit at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) when it took this picture of Ceres. This area shows relatively few craters, suggesting it is younger than some other areas on Ceres. Some bright spots are visible, although they are not as prominent as the most famous bright spots. Scientists do not yet have a clear explanation for them, but you can register your vote here. Click on the picture (or follow the link to the full image) for a better view of some interesting narrow, straight features in the lower left. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Full image and caption

Dawn takes great advantage of its unique ion propulsion system to maneuver extensively in orbit, optimizing its views of the alien world that beckoned for more than two centuries before a terrestrial ambassador arrived in March. Dawn has been in powered flight for most of its time in space, gently thrusting with its ion engine for 69 percent of the time since it embarked on its bold interplanetary adventure in 2007. Such a flight profile is entirely different from the great majority of space missions. Most spacecraft coast most of the time (just as planets do), making only brief maneuvers that may add up to just a few hours or even less over the course of a mission of many years. But most spacecraft could not accomplish Dawn’s ambitious mission. Indeed, no other spacecraft could. The only ship ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, Dawn accomplishes what would be impossible with conventional technology. With the extraordinary capability of ion propulsion, it is truly an interplanetary spaceship.

In addition to using its ion engine to travel to Vesta, enter into orbit around the protoplanet in 2011, break out of orbit in 2012, travel to Ceres and enter into orbit there this year, Dawn relies on the same system to fly to different orbits around these worlds it unveils, executing complex and graceful spirals around its gravitational master. After conducting wonderfully successful observation campaigns in its preantepenultimate Ceres orbit 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) high in April and May and its antepenultimate orbit at 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) in June, Dawn commenced its spiral descent to the penultimate orbit at 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) on June 30. (We will discuss this orbital altitude in more detail below.) A glitch interrupted the maneuvering almost as soon as it began, when protective software detected a discrepancy in the probe’s orientation. But thanks to the exceptional flexibility built into the plans, the mission could easily accommodate the change in schedule that followed. It will have no effect on the outcome of the exploration of Ceres. Let’s see what happened.

Survey orbit to HAMO
Dawn’s spiral descent from its second mapping orbit (survey), at 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers), to its third (HAMO), at 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). The two mapping orbits are shown in green. The color of Dawn’s trajectory progresses through the spectrum from blue, when it began ion-thrusting in survey orbit, to red, when it arrives in HAMO. The red dashed sections show where Dawn is coasting for telecommunications. Compare this to the previous spiral. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Control of Dawn’s orientation in the weightless conditions of spaceflight is the responsibility of the attitude control system. (To maintain a mystique about their work, engineers use the term “attitude” instead of “orientation.” This system also happens to have a very positive attitude about its work.) Dawn (and all other objects in three-dimensional space) can turn about three mutually perpendicular axes. The axes may be called pitch, roll and yaw; left/right, front/back and up/down; x, y and z; rock, paper and scissors; chocolate, vanilla and strawberry; Peter, Paul and Mary; etc., but whatever their names, attitude control has several different means to turn or to stabilize each axis. Earlier in its journey, the spacecraft depended on devices known as reaction wheels. As we have discussed in many Dawn Journals, that method is now used only rarely, because two of the four units have failed. The remaining two are being saved for the ultimate orbit at about 230 miles (375 kilometers), which Dawn will attain at the end of this year. Instead of reaction wheels, Dawn has been using its reaction control system, shooting puffs of hydrazine, a conventional rocket propellant, through small jets. (This is entirely different from the ion propulsion system, which expels high velocity xenon ions to change and control Dawn’s path through space. The reaction control system is used only to change and control attitude.)

Whenever Dawn is firing one of its three ion engines, its attitude control system uses still another method. The ship only operates one engine at a time, and attitude control swivels the mechanical gimbal system that holds that engine, thus imparting a small torque to the spacecraft, providing the means to control two axes (pitch and yaw, for example, or chocolate and strawberry). For the third axis (roll or vanilla), it still uses the hydrazine jets of the reaction control system.

On June 30, engine #3 came to life on schedule at 10:32:19 p.m. PDT to begin nearly five weeks of maneuvers. Attitude control deftly switched from using the reaction control system for all three axes to only one, and controlling the other two axes by tipping and tilting the engine with gimbal #3. But the control was not as effective as it should have been. Software monitoring the attitude recognized the condition but wisely avoided reacting too soon, instead giving attitude control time to try to rectify it. Nevertheless, the situation did not improve. Gradually the attitude deviated more and more from what it should have been, despite attitude control’s efforts. Seventeen minutes after thrusting started, the error had grown to 10 degrees. That’s comparable to how far the hour hand of a clock moves in 20 minutes, so Dawn was rotating only a little faster than an hour hand. But even that was more than the sophisticated probe could allow, so at 10:49:27 p.m., the main computer declared one of the “safe modes,” special configurations designed to protect the ship and the mission in uncertain, unexpected or difficult circumstances.

The spacecraft smoothly entered safe mode by turning off the ion engine, reconfiguring other systems, broadcasting a continuous radio signal through one of its antennas and then patiently awaiting further instructions. The radio transmission was received on a distant planet the next day. (It may yet be received on some other planets in the future, but we shall focus here on the response by Earthlings.) One of NASA’s Deep Space Network stations in Australia picked up the signal on July 1, and the mission control team at JPL began investigating immediately.

Engineers assessed the health of the spacecraft and soon started returning it to its normal configuration. By analyzing the myriad diagnostic details reported by the robot over the next few days, they determined that the gimbal mechanism had not operated correctly, so when attitude control tried to change the angle of the ion engine, it did not achieve the desired result.

Because Dawn had already accomplished more than 96 percent of the planned ion-thrusting for the entire mission (nearly 5.5 years so far), the remaining thrusting could easily be accomplished with only one of the ion engines. (Note that the 96 percent here is different from the 69 percent of the total time since launch mentioned above, simply because Dawn has been scheduled not to thrust some of the time, including when it takes data at Vesta and Ceres.) Similarly, of the ion propulsion system’s two computer controllers, two power units and two sets of valves and other plumbing for the xenon, the mission could be completed with only one of each. So although engineers likely could restore gimbal #3’s performance, they chose to switch to another gimbal (and thus another engine) and move on. Dawn’s goal is to explore a mysterious, fascinating world that used to be known as a planet, not to perform complex (and unnecessary) interplanetary gimbal repairs.

One of the benefits of being in orbit (besides it being an incredibly cool place to be) is that Dawn can linger at Ceres, studying it in great detail rather than being constrained by a fast flight and a quick glimpse. By the same principle, there was no urgency in resuming the spiral descent. The second mapping orbit was a perfectly fine place for the spacecraft, and it could circle Ceres there every 3.1 days as long as necessary. (Dawn consumed its hydrazine propellant at a very, very low rate while in that orbit, so the extra time there had a negligible cost, even as measured by the most precious resource.)

The operations team took the time to be cautious and to ensure that they understood the nature of the faulty gimbal well enough to be confident that the ship could continue its smooth sailing. They devised a test to confirm Dawn’s readiness to resume its spiral maneuvers. After swapping to gimbal #2 (and ipso facto engine #2), Dawn thrust from July 14 to 16 and demonstrated the excellent performance the operations team has seen so often from the veteran space traveler. Having passed its test with flying colors (or perhaps even with orbiting colors), Dawn is now well on its way to its third mapping orbit.

Artist’s concept of Dawn thrusting with ion engine #2.
Artist’s concept of Dawn thrusting with ion engine #2. The spacecraft captured the view of Ceres in June, and the intriguing cone described last month is visible on the limb at lower left. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Background image and caption

The gradual descent from the second mapping orbit to the third will require 25 revolutions. The maneuvers will conclude in about two weeks. (As always, you can follow the progress with your correspondent’s frequent and succinct updates here.) As in each mapping orbit, following arrival, a few days will be required in order to prepare for a new round of intensive observations. That third observing campaign will begin on August 17 and last more than two months.

Although this is the second lowest of the mapping orbits, it is also known as the high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO) for mysterious historical reasons. We presented an overview of the HAMO plans last year. Next month, we will describe how the flight team has built on a number of successes since then to make the plans even better.

The view of the landscapes on this distant and exotic dwarf planet from the third mapping orbit will be fantastic. How can we be so sure? The view in the second mapping orbit was fantastic, and it will be three times sharper in the upcoming orbit. Quod erat demonstrandum! To see the sights at Ceres, go there or go here.

Part of the flexibility built into the plans was to measure Ceres’ gravity field as accurately as possible in each mapping orbit and use that knowledge to refine the design for the subsequent orbital phase. Thanks to the extensive gravity measurements in the second mapping orbit in June, navigators were able not only to plot a spiral course but also to calculate the parameters for the next orbit to provide the views needed for the complex mapping activities.

This color-coded map from NASA's Dawn mission shows the highs and lows of topography on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres. It is labeled with names of features approved by the International Astronomical Union.
This map of Ceres depicts the topography ranging from 4.7 miles (7.5 kilometers) low in indigo to 4.7 miles (7.5 kilometers) high in white. (As a technical detail, the topography is shown relative to an ellipsoid of dimensions very close to those in the paragraph below.) The names of features have been approved by the International Astronomical Union following the system described in December. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Full image and caption

We have discussed some of the difficulty in describing the orbital altitude, including variations in the elevation of the terrain, just as a plane flying over mountains and valleys does not maintain a fixed altitude. As you might expect on a world battered by more than four billion years in the main asteroid belt and with its own internal geological forces, Ceres has its ups and downs. (The topographical map above displays them, and you can see a cool animation of Ceres showing off its topography here.) In addition to local topographical features, its overall shape is not perfectly spherical, as we discussed in May. Ongoing refinements based on Dawn’s measurements now indicate the average diameter is 584 miles (940 kilometers), but the equatorial diameter is 599 miles (964 kilometers), whereas the polar diameter is 556 miles (894 kilometers). Moreover, the orbits themselves are not perfect circles, and irregularities in the gravitational field, caused by regions of lower and higher density inside the dwarf planet, tug less or more on the craft, making it move up and down somewhat. (By using that same principle, scientists learn about the interior structure of Ceres and Vesta with very accurate measurements of the subtleties in the spacecraft’s orbital motions.) Although Dawn’s average altitude will be 915 miles (1,470 kilometers), its actual distance above the ground will vary over a range of about 25 miles (40 kilometers).

In March we summarized the four Ceres mapping orbits along with a guarantee that the dates would change. In addition to delivering exciting interplanetary adventures to thrill anyone who has ever gazed at the night sky in wonder, Dawn delivers on its promises. Therefore, we present the updated table here. With such a long and complex mission taking place in orbit around the largest previously uncharted world in the inner solar system, further changes are highly likely. (Nevertheless, we would consider the probability to be low that changes will occur for the phases in the past.)

Table showing Dawn's activities during the various mapping orbits
Find out more about Dawn's activities during these mapping orbits: RC3, survey, HAMO, LAMO

Click on the name of each orbit for a more detailed description. As a reminder, the last column illustrates how large Ceres appears to be from Dawn’s perspective by comparing it with a view of a soccer ball. (Note that Ceres is not only 4.4 million times the diameter of a soccer ball but it is a lot more fun to play with.)

Resolute and resilient, Dawn patiently continues its graceful spirals, propelled not only by its ion engine but also by the passions of everyone who yearns for new knowledge and noble adventures. Humankind’s robotic emissary is well on its way to providing more fascinating insights for everyone who longs to know the cosmos.

Dawn is 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 1.95 AU (181 million miles, or 291 million kilometers) from Earth, or 785 times as far as the moon and 1.92 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
8:00 p.m. PDT July 29, 2015

› Learn more about the Dawn mission


  • Marc Rayman

The brightest spots on Ceres.

Dear Evidawnce-Based Readers,

Dawn is continuing to unveil a Ceres of mysteries at the first dwarf planet discovered. The spacecraft has been extremely productive, returning a wealth of photographs and other scientific measurements to reveal the nature of this exotic alien world of rock and ice. First glimpsed more than 200 years ago as a dot of light among the stars, Ceres is the only dwarf planet between the sun and Neptune.

Dawn has been orbiting Ceres every 3.1 days at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). As described last month, the probe aimed its powerful sensors at the strange landscape throughout each long, slow passage over the side of Ceres facing the sun. Meanwhile, Ceres turned on its axis every nine hours, presenting itself to the ambassador from Earth. On the half of each revolution when Dawn was above ground that was cloaked in the darkness of night, it pointed its main antenna to that planet far, far away and radioed its precious findings to eager Earthlings (although the results will be available for others throughout the cosmos as well). Dawn began this second mapping campaign (also known as "survey orbit") on June 5, and tomorrow it will complete its eighth and final revolution.

The spacecraft made most of its observations by looking straight down at the terrain directly beneath it. During portions of its first, second and fourth orbits, however, Dawn peered at the limb of Ceres against the endless black of space, seeing the sights from a different perspective to gain a better sense of the lay of the land.

And what marvels Dawn has beheld! How can you not be mesmerized by the luminous allure of the famous bright spots? They are not, in fact, a source of light, but for a reason that remains elusive, the ground there reflects much more sunlight than elsewhere. Still, it is easy to imagine them as radiating a light all their own, summoning space travelers from afar, beckoning the curious and the bold to venture closer in return for an attractive reward. And that is exactly what we will do, as we seek the rewards of new knowledge and new insights into the cosmos.

Although scientists have not yet determined what minerals are there, Dawn will gather much more data. As summarized in this table, our explorer will map Ceres again from much closer during the course of its orbital mission. New bright areas have shown up in other locations too, in some places as relatively small spots, in others as larger areas (as in the photo below), and all of them will come into sharper focus when Dawn descends further.

limb with crater and bright materials inside and out
There is bright material easily visible inside and around the crater near the upper right. Did the powerful impact that excavated the crater deposit bright material that it brought from elsewhere in space, excavate bright material from underground or create the conditions that subsequently caused some material to become bright? The reason for the greater reflectivity is not yet known. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Full image and caption

In the meantime, you can register your opinion for what the bright spots are. Join more than 100 thousand others who have voted for an explanation for this enigma. Of course, Ceres will be the ultimate arbiter, and nature rarely depends upon public opinion, but the Dawn project will consider sending the results of the poll to Ceres, courtesy of our team member on permanent assignment there.

In addition to the bright spots, Dawn's views from its present altitude have included a wide range of other intriguing sights, as one would expect on a world of more than one million square miles (nearly 2.8 million square kilometers). There are myriad craters excavated by objects falling from space, inevitable scars from inhabiting the main asteroid belt for more than four billion years, even for the largest and most massive resident there.

The craters exhibit a wide range of appearances, not only in size but also in how sharp and fresh or how soft and aged they look. Some display a peak at the center. A crater can form from such a powerful punch that the hard ground practically melts and flows away from the impact site. Then the material rebounds, almost as if it sloshes back, while already cooling and then solidifying again. The central peak is like a snapshot, preserving a violent moment in the formation of the crater. By correlating the presence or absence of central peaks with the sizes of the craters, scientists can infer properties of Ceres' crust, such as how strong it is. Rather than a peak at the center, some craters contain large pits, depressions that may be a result of gasses escaping after the impact. (Craters elsewhere in the solar system, including on Vesta and Mars, also have pits.)

crater with terraced walls, a central peak and ridge, smooth areas at top of picture and more rugged terrain at bottom
Several craters here have central peaks. The largest also has a ridge at the center. Note other intriguing geological structures, including the terraced walls of that crater and the contrast between the smooth area in the top half of the picture and the more rugged terrain at the bottom. The picture below overlaps the top of this view. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Full image and caption

Dawn also has spied many long, straight or gently curved canyons. Geologists have yet to determine how they formed, and it is likely that several different mechanisms are responsible. For example, some might turn out to be the result of the crust of Ceres shrinking as the heat and other energy accumulated upon formation gradually radiated into space. When the behemoth slowly cooled, stresses could have fractured the rocky, icy ground. Others might have been produced as part of the devastation when a space rock crashed, rupturing the terrain.

Bright spots on the limb plus canyons
Several long canyons are evident in this view. The large crater that extends off the bottom of the picture is in the center of the picture above. Also notice the bright spots, just visible on the limb at upper left. The first picture above shows them from overhead. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.Full image and caption

Ceres shows other signs of an active past rather than that of a static chunk of inert material passing the eons with little notice. Some areas are less densely cratered than others, suggesting that there are geological processes that erase the craters. Indeed, some regions look as if something has flowed over them, as if perhaps there was mud or slush on the surface.

In addition to evidence of aging and renewal, some powerful internal forces have uplifted mountains. One particularly striking structure is a steep cone that juts three miles (five kilometers) high in an otherwise relatively smooth area, looking to an untrained (but transfixed) eye like a volcanic cone, a familiar sight on your home planet (or, at least, on mine). No other isolated, prominent protuberance has been spotted on Ceres.

limb with conical mountain above and to the right of center plus a few other bright areas
The conical mountain is above and to the right of center. With the solar illumination from the top of the picture, note how crater walls are brighter on the bottom (facing the sun) and darker on the top (shaded by the ground they sink into). The cone stands out because it is brighter on the top (facing the sun), and the opposite side is in the shade. (In addition, the material in some places on the cone is brighter than in other places on the same structure.) This view also show several bright spots and larger areas. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Full image and caption

another view of the limb with the same conical mountain and a few other bright areas.
The conical feature in the previous picture is visible here on the limb at bottom center. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Full image and caption

It is too soon for scientists to understand the intriguing geology of this ancient world, but the prolific adventurer is providing them with the information they will use. The bounty from this second mapping phase includes more than 1,600 pictures covering essentially all of Ceres, well over five million spectra in visible and infrared wavelengths and hundreds of hours of gravity measurements.

The spacecraft has performed its ambitious assignments quite admirably. Only a few deviations from the very elaborate plans occurred. On June 15 and 27, during the fourth and eighth flights over the dayside, the computer in the combination visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) detected an unexpected condition, and it stopped collecting data. When the spacecraft's main computer recognized the situation, it instructed VIR to close its protective cover and then power down. The unit dutifully did so. Also on June 27, about three hours before VIR's interruption, the camera's computer experienced something similar.

Most of the time that Dawn points its sensors at Ceres, it simultaneously broadcasts through one of its auxiliary radio antennas, casting a very wide but faint signal in the general direction of Earth. (As Dawn progresses in its orbit, the direction to Earth changes, but the spacecraft is equipped with three of these auxiliary antennas, each pointing in a different direction, and mission controllers program it to switch antennas as needed.) The operations team observed what had occurred in each case and recognized there was no need to take immediate action. The instruments were safe and Dawn continued to carry out all of its other tasks.

When Dawn subsequently flew to the nightside of Ceres and pointed its main antenna to Earth, it transmitted much more detailed telemetry. As engineers and scientists continue their careful investigations, they recognize that in many ways, these events appear very similar to ones that have occurred at other times in the mission.

Four years ago, VIR's computer reset when Dawn was approaching Vesta, and the most likely cause was deemed to be a cosmic ray strike. That's life in deep space! It also reset twice in the survey orbit phase at Vesta. The camera reset three times in the first three months of the low altitude mapping orbit at Vesta.

Even with the glitches in this second mapping orbit, Dawn's outstanding accomplishments represent well more than was originally envisioned or written into the mission's scientific requirements for this phase of the mission. For those of you who have not been to Ceres or aren't going soon (and even those of you who want to plan a trip there of your own), you can see what Dawn sees by going to the image gallery.

Although Dawn already has revealed far, far more about Ceres in the last six months than had been seen in the preceding two centuries of telescopic studies, the explorer is not ready to rest on its laurels. It is now preparing to undertake another complex spiral descent, using its sophisticated ion propulsion system to maneuver to a circular orbit three times as close to the dwarf planet as it is now. It will take five weeks to perform the intricate choreography needed to reach the third mapping altitude, starting tomorrow night. You can keep track of the spaceship's flight as it propels itself to a new vantage point for observing Ceres by visiting the mission status page or following it on Twitter @NASA_Dawn.

As Dawn moves closer to Ceres, Earth will be moving closer as well. Earth and Ceres travel on independent orbits around the sun, the former completing one revolution per year (indeed, that's what defines a year) and the latter completing one revolution in 4.6 years (which is one Cerean year). (We have discussed before why Earth revolves faster in its solar orbit, but in brief it is because being closer to the sun, it needs to move faster to counterbalance the stronger gravitational pull.) Of course, now that Dawn is in a permanent gravitational embrace with Ceres, where Ceres goes, so goes Dawn. And they are now and forever more so close together that the distance between Earth and Ceres is essentially equivalent to the distance between Earth and Dawn.

On July 22, Earth and Dawn will be at their closest since June 2014. As Earth laps Ceres, they will be 1.94 AU (180 million miles, or 290 million kilometers) apart. Earth will race ahead on its tight orbit around the sun, and they will be more than twice as far apart early next year.

Earth's and Ceres' orbits will bring them to their minimum separation on July 22. Earth's orbit is shown in green and Ceres' is in purple. Dawn's interplanetary trajectory is in blue. Compare this figure with the ones depicting Dawn and Earth on opposite sides of the sun in December 2014 and showing Dawn equidistant from Earth and the sun in April 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Although Dawn communicates regularly with Earth, it left that planet behind nearly eight years ago and will keep its focus now on its new residence. With two very successful mapping campaigns complete, its next priority is to work its way down through Ceres' gravitational field to an altitude of about 900 miles (less than 1,500 kilometers). With sharper views and new kinds of observations (including stereo photography), the treasure trove obtained by this intrepid extraterrestrial prospector will only be more valuable. Everyone who longs for new understandings and new perspectives on the cosmos will grow richer as Dawn continues to pioneer at a mysterious and distant dwarf planet.

Dawn is 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.01 AU (187 million miles, or 301 million kilometers) from Earth, or 785 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
10:00 p.m. PDT June 29, 2015

› Learn more about the Dawn mission


  • Marc Rayman

Animated gif of Ceres rotating

Dear Emboldawned Readers,

A bold adventurer from Earth is gracefully soaring over an exotic world of rock and ice far, far away. Having already obtained a treasure trove from its first mapping orbit, Dawn is now seeking even greater riches at dwarf planet Ceres as it maneuvers to its second orbit.

The first intensive mapping campaign was extremely productive. As the spacecraft circled 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) above the alien terrain, one orbit around Ceres took 15 days. During its single revolution, the probe observed its new home on five occasions from April 24 to May 8. When Dawn was flying over the night side (still high enough that it was in sunlight even when the ground below was in darkness), it looked first at the illuminated crescent of the southern hemisphere and later at the northern hemisphere.

When Dawn traveled over the sunlit side, it watched the northern hemisphere, then the equatorial regions, and finally the southern hemisphere as Ceres rotated beneath it each time. One Cerean day, the time it takes the globe to turn once on its axis, is about nine hours, much shorter than the time needed for the spacecraft to loop around its orbit. So it was almost as if Dawn hovered in place, moving only slightly as it peered down, and its instruments could record all of the sights as they paraded by.

We described the plans in much more detail in March, and they executed beautifully, yielding a rich collection of photos in visible and near infrared wavelengths, spectra in visible and infrared, and measurements of the strength of Ceres' gravitational attraction and hence its mass.

To gain the same view Dawn had, simply build your own ion-propelled spaceship, voyage deep into the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, take up residence at the giant orb and look out the window. Or go to the image gallery here.

Either way, the sights are spectacular. And they have already gotten even better. As Dawn has been descending to its second mapping orbit, it paused ion-thrusting on May 16 and May 22 to take more pictures, helping navigators get a tight fix on its orbital location. We explained this technique of optical navigation earlier, but now it is slightly different. Dawn is so close to Ceres that the behemoth fills the camera's field of view. No longer charting Ceres' location relative to background stars, navigators now use distinctive features on Ceres itself. It was an indistinct, fuzzy little blob just a few months ago, but now the maps are becoming detailed and accurate. Mathematical analyses of the locations of specific landmarks in each picture allow navigators to determine where Dawn was when the picture was taken.

Let's see how this works. Suppose I gave you a picture I had taken in your house. (The last time I was there, I opted for the cover of darkness rather than a more visible demonstration of optical navigation, but we can still imagine.) Because you know the positions of the doors, windows, furniture, impact craters, paintings, etc., you could establish where I had been when I took the photo. Now that they have charted the positions of the features at Dawn's new home, navigators can do virtually the same thing.

In addition to aiding in celestial navigation, the photos provided still better views of the world Dawn traveled so long and so far to explore. Greater and greater detail is visible as Dawn orbits closer, and a tremendous variety of intriguing sights are coming into view. It may well be that the most interesting discoveries have not even been made yet, but for now, what captivates most people (and other readers as well) are the bright spots.

We have discussed them here and there in recent months, and their luminous power continues to dazzle us. What appeared initially as one fuzzy spot proved to be two smaller spots and now many even smaller regions as the focus has become sharper. Why the ground there reflects so much sunlight remains elusive. Dawn's finer examinations with its suite of sophisticated instruments in the second, third and then final mapping orbits will provide scientists with data they need to unravel this marvelous mystery. For now, the enigmatic lights present an irresistible cosmic invitation to go closer and to scrutinize this strange and wonderful world, and we are eager to accept. After all, we explore to learn, to know the unknown, and the uniquely powerful scientific method will reveal the nature of the bright areas and what they can tell us about the composition and geology of this complex dwarf planet.

Close-up of the bright spots on Ceres
This was Dawn's view on May 16, as it flew from its first mapping orbit to its second. This OpNav 8 photo was taken at an altitude of 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
› Full image and caption

After having been viewed as little more than a smudge in telescopes for more than two centuries since its discovery, Ceres now is seen as a detailed, three-dimensional world. As promised, measurements from Dawn have revised the size to be about 599 miles (963 kilometers) across at the equator. Like Earth and other planets, Ceres is oblate, or slightly wider at the equator than from pole to pole. The polar diameter is 554 miles (891 kilometers). These dimensions are impressively close to what astronomers had determined from telescopic observations and confirm Ceres to be the colossus we have described.

Before Dawn, scientists had estimated Ceres' mass to be 1.04 billion billion tons (947 billion billion kilograms). Now it is measured to be 1.03 billion billion tons (939 billion billion kilograms), well within the previous margin of error. It is an impressive demonstration of the success of science that astronomers had been able to determine the heft of that point of light so accurately. Nevertheless, even this small change of less than one percent is important for planning the rest of Dawn’s mission as it orbits closer and closer, feeling the gravitational tug ever more strongly.

Let's put this change in context. Dawn has now refined the mass, making a proportionally small adjustment of about 0.01 billion billion tons (eight billion billion kilograms). Although no more than a tweak on the overall value, it is still significantly greater than the combined mass of all asteroids visited by all other spacecraft. Ceres is so immense, so massive that even if all those asteroids were added to it, the difference would hardly even have been noticeable. This serves as another reminder that the dwarf planet really is quite unlike the millions of small asteroids that constitute the main asteroid belt. This behemoth contains about 30 percent of all the mass in that entire vast region of space. Vesta, the protoplanet Dawn orbited and studied in 2011-2012, is the second most massive resident there, holding about 8 percent of the asteroid belt's mass. Dawn by itself is exploring around 40 percent of the asteroid belt's mass!

Upon concluding its first mapping orbit, Dawn powered on its remarkable ion propulsion system on May 9 to fly down to a lower altitude where it will gain a better view. We examined the nature of the spiral paths between mapping orbits last year (and at Vesta in 2011-2012).

Dawn's orbits about Ceres
Dawn's spiral descent from its first mapping orbit (RC3) to its second (survey). The two mapping orbits are shown in green. The color of Dawn's trajectory progresses through the spectrum from blue, when it began ion-thrusting on May 9, to red, when ion-thrusting concludes on June 3. The red dashed sections show where Dawn is coasting, mostly for telecommunications. The first two coast periods include OpNav 8 and 9. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
› Larger image

In its first mapping orbit, Dawn was 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) high, revolving once in 15.2 days at a speed of 150 mph (240 kilometers per hour). By the time it completes this descent, the probe will be at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers), orbiting Ceres every 3.1 days at 254 mph (408 kilometers per hour). (All of the mapping orbits were summarized in this table.) We have discussed that lower orbits require greater velocity to counterbalance the stronger gravitational hold.

Dawn's uniquely capable ion propulsion system, with its extraordinary combination of efficiency and gentleness, propels the ship to its new orbital destination in just under four weeks. The descent requires five revolutions, each one faster than the one before. The flight profile is complicated, and sometimes Dawn even dips below the final, planned altitude and then rises to greater heights as it flies on a path that is temporarily elliptical. The overall trend, of course, is downward. As Dawn heads for its targeted circular orbit, its maneuvering is also generally reducing the orbit period, the time required to make one complete revolution around Ceres. Indeed, if Dawn stopped thrusting now, its orbit period would be about 83 hours, or 3.5 days.

Dawn will complete ion-thrusting on June 3, but it will not be ready to begin its next science observations then. Rather, as in the other new mapping orbits, the first order of business will be for navigators to measure the new orbital parameters accurately. The flight team then will install in Dawn's main computer the details of the orbit it achieved so it will always know its location.

In addition, the intensive campaign of observations is planned to begin when the robotic explorer travels from the night side to the day side over the north pole. With the three-day orbit period, that will next occur on June 5. Controllers will take advantage of the intervening time to conduct other activities, including routine maintenance of the two reaction wheels that remain operable, although they are powered off most of the time. (Two of the four failed years ago. Dawn no longer relies on these devices to control its orientation, and it is remarkable that the mission can accomplish all of its original objectives without them. But if two do function in the final mapping orbit later this year, they will help extend the spacecraft's lifetime for bonus studies.)

We have already presented the ambitious plans for this second mapping orbit, sometimes known as "the second mapping orbit" and sometimes more succinctly and confusingly as "survey orbit." As with all four of Dawn's mapping orbits, it is designed to take the spacecraft over the poles, ensuring the best possible coverage. The ship will fly from the north pole to the south over the side of Ceres facing the sun, and then loop back to the north over the side hidden in the deep dark of night. On the day side, Dawn will aim its camera and spectrometers at the lit ground, filling its memory to capacity with the readings. On the night side, it will point its main antenna to distant Earth in order to radio its findings home. At Dawn's altitude, Ceres will appear twice as wide as the camera's view. (As illustrated in this table, it will look about the size of a soccer ball seen from a yard, or a meter, away.) But as the dwarf planet rotates on its axis and Dawn sails around in its more leisurely orbit, eventually all of the landscape will come within sight of the instruments.

Only one noteworthy change has been made in the intricate plans for survey orbit since May 2014's shocking exposé. With the observations starting on June 5, the subsequent complex orbital flight to the third mapping orbit (also known as HAMO) would have begun on June 27. As we have seen, the rapidly changing orbit in the spiral descents requires a great deal of effort by the small operations team on a rigid schedule. The capable men and women flying Dawn accomplished the maneuvers flawlessly at Vesta and are well prepared for the challenges at Ceres. The work is very demanding, however, and so, just as at Vesta, the team has built into the strategy the capability to make adjustments to align most of the tasks with a conventional work schedule. The technical plans (even including the exquisitely careful husbanding of hydrazine following the loss of the two reaction wheels) fully account for such human factors. It turns out that leaving survey orbit three days later shifts a significant amount of the following work off weekends, making it more comfortable for the team members. Three days is one complete revolution, and always extracting as much from the mission as possible, they have devised another full set of observations for an eighth orbit. As a result, survey orbit may be even more extensive and productive than originally anticipated.

What awaits Dawn in the next mapping phase? The views will be three times as sharp as in the previous orbit, and exciting new discoveries are sure to come. What answers will be revealed? And what new questions (besides this one) will arise? We will know soon, as we all share in the thrill of this grand adventure. To help you keep track of Dawn's progress as it powers its way down and then conducts further observations, your correspondent writes brief (hard to believe, isn't it?) mission status updates. And although in space no one can hear you tweet, terrestrial followers can get even more frequent updates with information he provides for Twitter @NASA_Dawn.

Dawn is 3,400 miles (5,500 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.30 AU (214 million miles, or 345 million kilometers) from Earth, or 855 times as far as the moon and 2.27 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 38 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
12:00 p.m. PDT May 28, 2015


  • Marc Rayman

Anaglyph of Ceres

Let's get Dawn to business, Dear Readers,

Dawn's assignment when it embarked on its extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition in 2007 can be described quite simply: explore the two most massive uncharted worlds in the inner solar system. It conducted a spectacular mission at Vesta, orbiting the giant protoplanet for 14 months in 2011-2012, providing a wonderfully rich and detailed view. Now the sophisticated probe is performing its first intensive investigation of dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn is slowly circling the alien world of rock and ice, far from Earth and far from the sun, executing its complex operations with the prowess it has demonstrated throughout its ambitious journey.

Following an interplanetary trek of 7.5 years and 3.1 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers), Earth's ambassador arrived in orbit on March 6, answering Ceres' two-century-old celestial invitation. With its advanced ion propulsion system and ace piloting skills, it has maneuvered extensively in orbit. Traveling mostly high over the night side of Ceres, arcing and banking, thrusting and coasting, accelerating and decelerating, climbing and diving, the spaceship flew to its first targeted orbital altitude, which it reached on April 23.

Dawn is at an altitude of about 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) above the mysterious terrain. This first mapping orbit is designated RC3 by the Dawn team and is a finalist in the stiff competition for the coveted title of Most Confusing Name for a Ceres Mapping Orbit. (See this table for the other contestants.) Last month we described some of the many observations Dawn will perform here, including comprehensive photography of the alien landscapes, spectra in infrared and visible wavelengths, a search for an extremely tenuous veil of water vapor and precise tracking of the orbit to measure Ceres' mass.

Illustration of Dawn’s four mapping orbits
Dawn’s four mapping orbits, shown to scale in altitude with the size of Ceres, which is about 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter. See this table for descriptions of the orbits and links to the activities scheduled for each. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On the way down to this orbit, the spacecraft paused ion thrusting twice earlier this month to take pictures of Ceres, as it had seven times before in the preceding three months. (We presented and explained the schedule for photography during the three months leading up to RC3 here.) Navigators used the pictures to measure the position of Ceres against the background of stars, providing crucial data to guide the ship to its intended orbit. The Dawn team also used the pictures to learn about Ceres to aid in preparing for the more detailed observations.

We described last month, for example, adjusting the camera settings for upcoming pictures to ensure good exposures for the captivating bright spots, places that reflect significantly more sunlight than most of the dark ground. Scientists have also examined all the pictures for moons of Ceres (and many extra pictures were taken specifically for that purpose). And thanks to Dawn's pictures, everyone who longs for a perspective on the universe unavailable from our terrestrial home has been transported to a world one million times farther away than the International Space Station.

The final pictures before reaching RC3 certainly provide a unique perspective. (You can see Dawn's pictures of Ceres here.) On April 10 and April 14-15, Dawn peered down over the northern hemisphere and watched for two hours each time as Ceres turned on its axis, part of the unfamiliar cratered terrain bathed in sunlight, part in the deep dark of night. This afforded a very different view from what we are accustomed to in looking at other planets, as most depictions of planetary rotations are from nearer the equator to show more of the surface. (Indeed, Dawn acquired views like that in its February "rotation characterizations.") The latest animations of Ceres rotating beneath Dawn are powerful visual reminders that this capable interplanetary explorer really is soaring around in orbit about a distant, alien world. Following the complex flight high above the dark hemisphere, where there was nothing to see, the pictures also show us that the long night's journey into day has ended.

Animated sequence of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft showing the northern terrain on the sunlit side of dwarf planet Ceres
This animated sequence of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows northern terrain on the sunlit side of dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn took these images on April 14 and 15 from a vantage point 14,000 miles (22,000 kilometers) above Ceres' northern hemisphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA | › Full image and caption

Gradually descending atop its blue-green beam of high velocity xenon ions, Dawn crossed over the terminator -- the boundary between the dark side and the lit side -- on April 15 almost directly over the north pole. On April 20, on final approach to RC3, it flew over the equator at an altitude of about 8,800 miles (14,000 kilometers).

The spacecraft completed its ion thrusting shortly after 1:00 a.m. PDT on April 23. What an accomplishment this was! From the time Dawn left its final mapping orbit at Vesta in July 2012, this is where it has been headed. The escape from Vesta's gravitational clutches in September 2012, the subsequent two and a half years of interplanetary travel and entering into orbit around Ceres on March 6, as genuinely exciting and important as it was, all really occurred as consequences of targeting this particular orbit.

In September 2014, the aftereffects of being struck by cosmic radiation compelled the operations team to rapidly develop a complex new approach trajectory because they still wanted to achieve this very orbit, where Dawn is now. And the eidetic reader will note that even when the innovative flight profile was presented five months ago (with many further details in subsequent months), we explained that it would conclude on April 23. And it did! Here we are! All the descriptions and figures plus a cool video elucidated a pretty neat idea, but it's also much more than an idea: it's real!! A probe from Earth is in a mapping orbit around a faraway dwarf planet.

When it had accomplished the needed ion thrusting, the veteran space traveler turned to point its main antenna to Earth so mission controllers could prepare it for the intensive mapping observations. The first task was to measure the orbital parameters so they could be transmitted to the spacecraft.

A few readers (you and I both know who you are) may have noted that in Dawn Journals during the last year, we have described the altitude of RC3 as 8,400 miles and 13,500 kilometers. Above, however, it is 13,600 kilometers. This is not a mistake. (It would be a mistake if the previous sentence were written, "Above, howevr, it is 13,600 kilometers.") This subtle difference belies several important issues about the orbits at Ceres. Let's take a further look.

As we explained when Dawn resided at Vesta, the orbital altitude we present is always an average (and rounded off, to avoid burdening readers with too many unhelpful digits). Vesta, Ceres, Earth and other planetary bodies are not perfect spheres, so even if the spacecraft traveled in a perfect circle, its altitude would change. They all are somewhat oblate, being wider across the equator than from pole to pole. In addition, they have more localized topography. Think of flying in a plane over your planet. If the pilot maintains a constant altitude above sea level, the distance above the ground changes because the elevation of the ground itself varies, coming closer to the aircraft on mountains and farther in valleys. In addition, as it turns out, orbits are not perfect circles but tend to be slightly elliptical, as if the plane flies slightly up and down occasionally, so the altitude changes even more.

In their exquisitely detailed planning, the Dawn team has had to account for the unknown nature of Ceres itself, including its mass and hence the strength of its gravitational pull. Dawn is the only spacecraft to orbit large, massive planetary bodies that were not previously visited by flyby spacecraft. Mercury, Venus, the moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all were studied by spacecraft that flew past them before subsequent missions were sent to orbit them. The first probes to each provided an initial measurement of the mass and other properties that were helpful for the arrival of the first orbiters. At Vesta and Ceres, Dawn has had to discover the essential characteristics as it spirals in closer and closer. For each phase, engineers make the best measurements they can and then use them to update the plans for the subsequent phases. As a result, however, plans are based on impressive but nevertheless imperfect knowledge of what will be encountered at lower altitudes. So even if the spacecraft executes an ion thrust flight profile perfectly, it might not wind up exactly where the plan had specified.

There are other reasons as well for small differences between the predicted and the actual orbit. One is minor variations in the thrust of the ion propulsion system, as we discussed here. Another is that every time the spacecraft fires one of its small rocket thrusters to rotate or to stabilize its orientation in the zero-gravity conditions of spaceflight, that also nudges the spacecraft, changing its orbit a little. (See here for a related example of the effect of the thrusters on the trajectory.)

The Dawn flight team has a deep understanding of all the sources of orbit discrepancies, and they always ensure that their intricate plans account for them. Even if the RC3 altitude ended up more than 300 miles (500 kilometers) higher or lower than the specified value, everything would still work just fine to yield the desired pictures and other data. In fact, the actual RC3 orbit is within 25 miles (40 kilometers), or less than one tenth what the plan was designed to accommodate, so the spacecraft achieved a virtual cosmic bullseye!

In the complex preparations on April 23, one file was not radioed to Dawn on time, so late that afternoon when the robot tried to use this file, it could not find it. It responded appropriately by running protective software, stopping its activities, entering "safe mode" and beaming a signal back to distant Earth to indicate it needed further instructions. After the request arrived in mission control at JPL, engineers quickly recognized what had occurred. That night they reconfigured the spacecraft out of safe mode and back to its normal operational configuration, and they finished off the supply of ice cream in the freezer just outside the mission control room. Although Dawn was not ready to begin its intensive observation campaign in the morning of April 24, it started later that same day and has continued to be very productive.

Dawn is a mission of exploration. And rather than be constrained by a fast flight by a target for a brief glimpse, Dawn has the capability to linger in orbit for a very long time at close range. The probe will spend more than a year conducting detailed investigations to reveal as much as possible about the nature of the first dwarf planet discovered, which we had seen only with telescopes since it was first glimpsed in 1801. The pictures Dawn has sent us so far are intriguing and entrancing, but they are only the introduction to this exotic world. They started transforming it from a smudge of light into a real, physical place and one that a sophisticated, intrepid spacecraft can even reach. Being in the first mapping orbit represents the opportunity now to begin developing a richly detailed, intimate portrait of a world most people never even knew existed. Now, finally, we are ready to start uncovering the secrets Ceres has held since the dawn of the solar system.

Dawn is 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.66 AU (247 million miles, or 398 million kilometers) from Earth, or 985 times as far as the moon and 2.64 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 44 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
10:30 p.m. PDT April 29, 2015

P.S. Our expert outreach team has done a beautiful job modernizing the website, and blog comments are no longer included. I appreciate all the very kind feedback, expressions of enthusiasm, interesting questions and engaging discussions that the community of Dawnophiles has posted over the last year or so. Now I will devote the time I had been spending responding to comments to providing more frequent mission status updates as well as fun and interesting tidbits you can follow on Twitter @NASA_Dawn.


  • Marc Rayman

Image of dwarf planet Ceres from NASA's Dawn spacecraft

Dear Dawnticipating Explorers,

Now orbiting high over the night side of a dwarf planet far from Earth, Dawn arrived at its new permanent residence on March 6. Ceres welcomed the newcomer from Earth with a gentle but firm gravitational embrace. The goddess of agriculture will never release her companion. Indeed, Dawn will only get closer from now on. With the ace flying skills it has demonstrated many times on this ambitious deep-space trek, the interplanetary spaceship is using its ion propulsion system to maneuver into a circular orbit 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) above the cratered landscape of ice and rock. Once there, it will commence its first set of intensive observations of the alien world it has traveled for so long and so far to reach.

For now, however, Dawn is not taking pictures. Even after it entered orbit, its momentum carried it to a higher altitude, from which it is now descending. From March 2 to April 9, so much of the ground beneath it is cloaked in darkness that the spacecraft is not even peering at it. Instead, it is steadfastly looking ahead to the rewards of the view it will have when its long, leisurely, elliptical orbit loops far enough around to glimpse the sunlit surface again.

Among the many sights we eagerly anticipate are those captivating bright spots. Hinted at more than a decade ago by Hubble Space Telescope, Dawn started to bring them into sharper focus after an extraordinary journey of more than seven years and three billion miles (nearly five billion kilometers). Although the spots are reflections of sunlight, they seem almost to radiate from Ceres as cosmic beacons, drawing us forth, spellbound. Like interplanetary lighthouses, their brilliant glow illuminates the way for a bold ship from Earth sailing on the celestial seas to a mysterious, uncharted port. The entrancing lights fire our imagination and remind us of the irresistible lure of exploration and the powerful anticipation of an adventure into the unknown.

As we describe below, Dawn’s extensive photographic coverage of the sunlit terrain in early May will include these bright spots. They will not be in view, however, when Dawn spies the thin crescent of Ceres in its next optical navigation session, scheduled for April 10 (as always, all dates here are in the Pacific time zone).

As the table here shows, on April 14 (and extending into April 15), Dawn will obtain its last navigational fix before it finishes maneuvering. Should we look forward to catching sight of the bright spots then? In truth, we do not yet know. The spots surely will be there, but the uncertainty is exactly where “there” is. We still have much to learn about a dwarf planet that, until recently, was little more than a fuzzy patch of light among the glowing jewels of the night sky. (For example, only last month did we determine where Ceres’north and south poles point.) Astronomers had clocked the length of its day, the time it takes to turn once on its axis, at a few minutes more than nine hours. But the last time the spots were in view of Dawn’s camera was on Feb. 19. From then until April 14, while Earth rotates more than 54 times (at 24 hours per turn), Ceres will rotate more than 140 times, which provides plenty of time for a small discrepancy in the exact rate to build up. To illustrate this, if our knowledge of the length of a Cerean day were off by one minute (or less than 0.2 percent), that would translate into more than a quarter of a turn during this period, drastically shifting the location of the spots from Dawn’s point of view. So we are not certain exactly what range of longitudes will be within view in the scheduled OpNav 7 window. Regardless, the pictures will serve their intended purpose of helping navigators establish the probe’s location in relation to its gravitational captor.

Dawn’s gradual, graceful arc down to its first mapping orbit will take the craft from the night side to the day side over the north pole, and then it will travel south. It will conclude its powered flight over the sunlit terrain at about 60 degrees south latitude. The spacecraft will finish reshaping its orbit on April 23, and when it stops its ion engine on that date, it will be in its new circular orbit, designated RC3. (We will return to the confusing names of the different orbits at Ceres below.) Then it will coast, just as the moon coasts in orbit around Earth and Earth coasts around the sun. It will take Dawn just over 15 days to complete one revolution around Ceres at this height. We had a preview of RC3 last year, and now we can take an updated look at the plans.

OP NAV 5 image
Dawn’s final swoop down to RC3 orbit. The sun is off the figure far to the left, and Ceres’ north pole points up. The farther Dawn is to the right side of Ceres here, the smaller a crescent it sees, because the illumination is from the left. The white circles are at one-day intervals. The trajectory is solid where Dawn is thrusting with its ion engine, which is most of the time. The labels show four optical navigation sessions, where it pauses to turn, point at Ceres, conduct the indicated observation, turn to point its main antenna to Earth, transmit its findings, turn back to the orientation needed for thrusting, and then restart the ion engine. Dawn was captured into orbit on March 6. Note the periods on the right side of the figure between OpNav 5 (on March 1) and OpNav 6 (on April 10) when Dawn pauses thrusting for telecommunications and radio navigation but does not take pictures because it would have to point its instruments too close to the sun. Apodemeter is the Dawn team’s word for the highest altitude in orbit, in analogy with the more common term apogee, which applies for Earth orbits. (Demeter is the Greek counterpart of the Roman goddess Ceres.) Dawn was at its apodemeter of 46,800 miles (75,400 kilometers) on March 18. For more on Dawn’s approach trajectory, see the overall description and figures from other perspectives in November (including the motion into and out of this flat depiction), further details (including the OpNavs) in February and an animation in March. Image credit: NASA/JPL

The dwarf planet is around 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter (like Earth and other planets, however, it is slightly wider at the equator than from pole to pole). At the spacecraft’s orbital altitude, it will appear to be the same size as a soccer ball seen from 10 feet (3 meters) away. Part of the basis upon which mission planners chose this distance for the first mapping campaign is that the visible disc of Ceres will just fit in the camera’s field of view. All the pictures taken at lower altitudes will cover a smaller area (but will be correspondingly more detailed). The photos from RC3 will be 3.4 times sharper than those in RC2.

There will be work to do before photography begins however. The first order of business after concluding ion thrusting will be for the flight team to perform a quick navigational update (this time, using only the radio signal) and transmit any refinements (if necessary) in Dawn’s orbital parameters, so it always has an accurate knowledge of where it is. (These will not be adjustments to the orbit but rather a precise mathematical description of the orbit it achieved.) Controllers will also reconfigure the spacecraft for its intensive observations, which will commence on April 24 as it passes over the south pole and to the night side again.

As at Vesta, even though half of each circular orbit will be over the night side of Ceres, the spacecraft itself will never enter the shadows. The operations team has carefully designed the orbits so that at Dawn’s altitude, it remains illuminated by the sun, even when the land below is not.

It may seem surprising (or even be surprising) that Dawn will conduct measurements when the ground directly beneath it is hidden in the deep darkness of night. To add to the surprise, these observations were not even envisioned when Dawn’s mission was designed, and it did not perform comparable measurements during its extensive exploration of Vesta in 2011-2012.

This artist's concept shows NASA's Dawn spacecraft arriving at the dwarf planet Ceres (lower right). Dawn travels through space using a technology called ion propulsion, in which ions are accelerated out of an engine, giving the spacecraft thrust. The xenon ions glow with blue light.
This artist’s concept shows Dawn thrusting with its center ion engine high above the night side of Ceres, which displays only a narrow crescent below the spacecraft. The gentle but efficient thrust allows Dawn to change the shape of its orbit. It will complete this first phase of orbital maneuvering on April 23 when it achieves RC3 orbit. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The measurements on the night side will serve several purposes. One of the many sophisticated techniques scientists use to elucidate the nature of planetary surfaces is to measure how much light they reflect at different angles. Over the course of the next year, Dawn will acquire tens of thousands of pictures from the day side of Ceres, when, in essence, the sun is behind the camera. When it is over the night side in RC3, carefully designed observations of the lit terrain (with the sun somewhat in front of the camera, although still at a safe angle) will significantly extend the range of angles.

In December, we described the fascinating discovery of an extremely diffuse veil of water vapor around Ceres. How the water makes its way from the dwarf planet high into space is not known. The Dawn team has devised a plan to investigate this further, even though the tiny amount of vapor was sighted long after the explorer left Earth equipped with sensors designed to study worlds without atmospheres.

It is worth emphasizing that the water vapor is exceedingly tenuous. Indeed, it is much less dense than Earth’s atmosphere at altitudes above the International Space Station, which orbits in what most people consider to be the vacuum of space. Our hero will not need to deploy its umbrella. Even comets, which are miniscule in comparison with Ceres, liberate significantly more water.

There may not even be any water vapor at all now because Ceres is farther from the sun than when the Herschel Space Observatory saw it, but if there is, detecting it will be very challenging. The best method to glimpse it is to look for its subtle effects on light passing through it. Although Dawn cannot gaze directly at the sun, it can look above the lit horizon from the night side, searching intently for faint signs of sunlight scattered by sparse water molecules (or perhaps dust lofted into space with them).

For three days in RC3 after passing over the south pole, the probe will take many pictures and visible and infrared spectra as it watches the slowly shrinking illuminated crescent and the space over it. When the spacecraft has flown to about 29 degrees south latitude over the night side, it will no longer be safe to aim its sensitive instruments in that direction, because they would be too close to the sun. With its memory full of data, Dawn will turn to point its main antenna toward distant Earth. It will take almost two days to radio its findings to NASA’s Deep Space Network. Meanwhile, the spacecraft will continue northward, gliding silently high over the dark surface.

On April 28, it will rotate again to aim its sensors at Ceres and the space above it, resuming measurements when it is about 21 degrees north of the equator and continuing almost to the north pole on May 1. By the time it turns once again to beam its data to Earth, it will have completed a wealth of measurements not even considered when the mission was being designed.

Loyal readers will recall that Dawn has lost two of its four reaction wheels, gyroscope-like devices it uses to turn and to stabilize itself. Although such a loss could be grave for some missions, the operations team overcame this very serious challenge. They now have detailed plans to accomplish all of the original Ceres objectives regardless of the condition of the reaction wheels, even the two that have not failed (yet). It is quite a testament to their creativity and resourcefulness that despite the tight constraints of flying the spacecraft differently, the team has been able to add bonus objectives to the mission.

Some might see a pancake, and others a sand dollar, in this new image of dwarf planet Ceres from NASA's Dawn mission.
Dawn had this view of Ceres on Feb. 19 at a distance of 28,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). Among the puzzling features is the large structure below and to the right of center. Pictures in RC3 will be more than three times sharper. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn will finish transmitting its data after its orbit takes it over the north pole and to the day side of Ceres again. For three periods during its gradual flight of more than a week over the illuminated landscape, it will take pictures (in visible and near-infrared wavelengths) and spectra. Each time, it will look down from space for a full Cerean day, watching for more than nine hours as the dwarf planet pirouettes, as if showing off to her new admirer. As the exotic features parade by, Dawn will faithfully record the sites.

It is important to set the camera exposures carefully. Most of the surface reflects nine percent of the sunlight. (For comparison, the moon reflects 12 percent on average, although as many Earthlings have noticed, there is some variation from place to place. Mars reflects 17 percent, and Vesta reflects 42 percent. Many photos seem to show that your correspondent’s forehead reflects about 100 percent.) But there are some small areas that are significantly more reflective, including the two most famous bright spots. Each spot occupies only one pixel (2.7 miles, or 4.3 kilometers across) in the best pictures so far. If each bright area on the ground is the size of a pixel, then they reflect around 40 percent of the light, providing the stark contrast with the much darker surroundings. When Dawn’s pictures show more detail, it could be that they will turn out to be even smaller and even more reflective than they have appeared so far. In RC3, each pixel will cover 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). To ensure the best photographic results, controllers are modifying the elaborate instructions for the camera to take pictures of the entire surface with a wider range of exposures than previously planned, providing high confidence that all dark and all bright areas will be revealed clearly.

Dawn will observe Ceres as it flies from 45 degrees to 35 degrees north latitude on May 3-4. Of course, the camera’s view will extend well north and south of the point immediately below it. (Imagine looking at a globe. Even though you are directly over one point, you can see a larger area.) The territory it will inspect will include those intriguing bright spots. The explorer will report back to Earth on May 4-5. It will perform the same observations between 5 degrees north and 5 degrees south on May 5-6 and transmit those findings on May 6-7. To complete its first global map, it will make another full set of measurements for a Cerean day as it glides between 35 degrees and 45 degrees south on May 7.

By the time it has transmitted its final measurements on May 8, the bounty from RC3 may be more than 2,500 pictures and two million spectra. Mission controllers recognize that glitches are always possible, especially in such complex activities, and they take that into account in their plans. Even if some of the scheduled pictures or spectra are not acquired, RC3 should provide an excellent new perspective on the alien world, displaying details three times smaller than what we have discerned so far.

Dawn activated its gamma ray spectrometer and neutron spectrometer on March 12, but it will not detect radiation from Ceres at this high altitude. For now, it is measuring space radiation to provide context for later measurements. Perhaps it will sense some neutrons in the third mapping orbit this summer, but its primary work to determine the atomic constituents of the material within about a yard (meter) of the surface will be in the lowest altitude orbit at the end of the year.

Illustration of Dawn’s four mapping orbits
Dawn’s four mapping orbits, shown to scale in altitude with the size of Ceres, which is about 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter. (Note: colors of the orbits here are only approximate.) The table below includes links to descriptions of the activities in each orbit. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dawn will conduct its studies from three lower orbital altitudes after RC3, taking advantage of the tremendous maneuverability provided by ion propulsion to spiral from one to another. We presented previews last year of each phase, and as each approaches, we will give still more up-to-date details, but now that Dawn is in orbit, let’s summarize them here. Of course, with complicated operations in the forbidding depths of space, there are always possibilities for changes, especially in the schedule. The team has developed an intricate but robust and flexible plan to extract as many secrets from Ceres as possible, and they will take any changes in stride.

Each orbit is designed to provide a better view than the one before, and Dawn will map the orb thoroughly while at each altitude. The names for the orbits – rotation characterization 3 (RC3); survey; high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO); and low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) – are based on ancient ideas, and the origins are (or should be) lost in the mists of time. Readers should avoid trying to infer anything at all meaningful in the designations. After some careful consideration, your correspondent chose to use the same names the Dawn team uses rather than create more helpful descriptors for the purposes of these blogs. That ensures consistency with other Dawn project communications. After all, what is important is not what the different orbits are called but rather what amazing new discoveries each one enables.

The robotic explorer will make many kinds of measurements with its suite of powerful instruments. As one indication of the improving view, this table includes the resolution of the photos, and the ever finer detail may be compared with the pictures during the approach phase. For another perspective, we extend the soccer ball analogy above to illustrate how large Ceres will appear to be from the spacecraft’s orbital vantage point.

chart showing what Dawn will see at various orbits about Ceres
Find out more about Dawn's activities during these mapping orbits: RC3, survey, HAMO, LAMO

As Dawn orbits Ceres, together they orbit the sun. Closer to the master of the solar system, Earth (with its own retinue, including the moon and many artificial satellites) travels faster in its heliocentric orbit because of the sun’s stronger gravitational pull at its location. In December, Earth was on the opposite side of the sun from Dawn, and now the planet’s higher speed is causing their separation to shrink. Earth will get closer and closer until July 22, when it will pass on the inside track, and the distance will increase again.

In the meantime, on April 12, Dawn will be equidistant from the sun and Earth. The spacecraft will be 2.89 AU or 269 million miles (433 million kilometers) from both. At the same time, Earth will be 1.00 AU or 93.2 million miles (150 million kilometers) from the sun.

Illustration showing the positions of Earth, Mars, Vesta and Ceres from the sun to Dawn
Illustration of the relative locations (but not sizes) of Earth, the sun, Dawn and Ceres on April 12, 2015. (Earth and the sun are at that location every April 12.) The distance from Earth to Dawn is the same as the distance from the sun to Dawn. The images are superimposed on the trajectory for the entire mission, showing the positions of Earth, Mars, Vesta, and Ceres at milestones during Dawn’s voyage. Compare this to the arrangement in December, when Earth and Dawn were on opposite sides of the sun. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It will be as if Dawn is at the tip of a giant celestial arrowhead, pointing the way to a remarkable solar system spectacle. The cosmos should take note! Right there, a sophisticated spaceship from Earth is gracefully descending on a blue-green beam of xenon ions. Finally, the dwarf planet beneath it, a remote remnant from the dawn of the solar system, is lonely no more. Almost 4.6 billion years after it formed, and 214 years after inquisitive creatures on a distant planet first caught sight of it, a mysterious world is still welcoming the new arrival. And as Dawn prepares to settle into its first close orbit, ready to discover secrets Ceres has kept for so long, everyone who shares in the thrill of this grand and noble adventure eagerly awaits its findings. Together, we look forward to the excitement of new knowledge, new insight and new fuel for our passionate drive to explore the universe.

Dawn is 35,000 miles (57,000 kilometers) from Ceres, or 15 percent of the average distance between Earth and the moon. It is also 3.04 AU (282 million miles, or 454 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,120 times as far as the moon and 3.04 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 51 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
6:00 p.m. PDT March 31, 2015

› Read more entries from Marc Rayman's Dawn Journal


  • Marc Rayman

Animated gif of Ceres rotating as imaged by Dawn

Dear Unprecedawnted Readers,

Since its discovery in 1801, Ceres has been known as a planet, then as an asteroid, and later as a dwarf planet. Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) and 7.5 years, Dawn calls it “home.”

Earth’s robotic emissary arrived at about 4:39 a.m. PST today. It will remain in residence at the alien world for the rest of its operational life, and long, long after.

Before we delve into this unprecedented milestone in the exploration of space, let’s recall that even before reaching orbit, Dawn started taking pictures of its new home. Last month we presented the updated schedule for photography. Each activity to acquire images (as well as visible spectra and infrared spectra) has executed smoothly and provided us with exciting and tantalizing new perspectives.

While there are countless questions about Ceres, the most popular now seems to be what the bright spots are. It is impossible not to be mesmerized by what appear to be glowing beacons, shining out across the cosmic seas from the uncharted lands ahead. But the answer hasn’t changed: we don’t know. There are many intriguing speculations, but we need more data, and Dawn will take photos and myriad other measurements as it spirals closer and closer during the year. For now, we simply know too little.

For example, some people ask if those spots might be lights from an alien city. That’s ridiculous! At this early stage, how could Dawn determine what kinds of groupings Cereans live in? Do they even have cities? For all we know, they may live only in rural communities, or perhaps they only have large states.

What we already know is that in more than 57 years of space exploration, Dawn is now the only spacecraft ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations. A true interplanetary spaceship, Dawn left Earth in Sep. 2007 and traveled on its own independent course through the solar system. It flew past Mars in Feb. 2009, robbing the red planet of some of its own orbital energy around the sun. In July 2011, the ship entered orbit around the giant protoplanet Vesta, the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (By the way, Dawn’s arrival at Vesta was exactly one Vestan year ago earlier this week.) It conducted a spectacular exploration of that fascinating world, showing it to be more closely related to the terrestrial planets (including Earth, home to many of our readers) than to the typical objects people think of as asteroids. After 14 months of intensive operations at Vesta, Dawn climbed out of orbit in Sep. 2012, resuming its interplanetary voyage. Today it arrived at its final destination, Ceres, the largest object between the sun and Pluto that had not previously been visited by a spacecraft. (Fortunately, New Horizons is soon to fly by Pluto. We are in for a great year!)

What was the scene like at JPL for Dawn’s historic achievement? It’s easy to imagine the typical setting in mission control. The tension is overwhelming. Will it succeed or will it fail? Anxious people watch their screens, monitoring telemetry carefully, frustrated that there is nothing more they can do now. Nervously biting their nails, they are thinking of each crucial step, any one of which might doom the mission to failure. At the same time, the spacecraft is executing a bone-rattling, whiplash-inducing burn of its main engine to drop into orbit. When the good news finally arrives that orbit is achieved, the room erupts! People jump up and down, punch the air, shout, tweet, cry, hug and feel the tremendous relief of overcoming a huge risk. You can imagine all that, but that’s not what happened.

If you had been in Dawn mission control, the scene would have been different. You would mostly be in the dark. (For your future reference, the light switches are to the left of the door.) The computer displays would be off, and most of the illumination would be from the digital clock and the string of decorative blue lights that indicate the ion engine is scheduled to be thrusting. You also would be alone (at least until JPL Security arrived to escort you away, because you were not cleared to enter the room, and, for that matter, how did you get past the electronic locks?). Meanwhile, most of the members of the flight team were at home and asleep! (Your correspondent was too, rare though that is. When Dawn entered orbit around Vesta, he was dancing. Ceres’ arrival happened to be at a time less conducive to consciousness.)

Why was such a significant event treated with somnolence? It is because Dawn has a unique way of entering orbit, which is connected with the nature of the journey itself. We have discussed some aspects of getting into orbit before (with this update to the nature of the approach trajectory). Let’s review some of it here.

It may be surprising that prior to Dawn, no spacecraft had even attempted to orbit two distant targets. Who wouldn’t want to study two alien worlds in detail, rather than, as previous missions, either fly by one or more for brief encounters or orbit only one? A mission like Dawn’s is an obvious kind to undertake. It happens in science fiction often: go somewhere, do whatever you need to do there (e.g., beat someone up or make out with someone) and then boldly go somewhere else. However, science fact is not always as easy as science fiction. Such missions are far, far beyond the capability of conventional propulsion.

Deep Space 1 (DS1) blazed a new trail with its successful testing of ion propulsion, which provides 10 times the efficiency of standard propulsion, showing on an operational interplanetary mission that the advanced technology really does work as expected. (This writer was fortunate enough to work on DS1, and he even documented the mission in a series of increasingly wordy blogs. But he first heard of ion propulsion from the succinct Mr. Spock and subsequently followed its use by the less logical Darth Vader.)

Global mosaic of craters, mysterious bright spots and other intriguing features on Ceres
Dawn observed Ceres throughout a full nine-hour rotation of the dwarf planet, yielding this global mosaic of craters, mysterious bright spots and other intriguing features. The photos were taken on Feb. 19 from a distance of about 28,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). Ceres has about 38 percent of the area of the continental United States. The imaging session was known as RC2. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn’s ambitious expedition would be truly impossible without ion propulsion. (For a comparison of chemical and ion propulsion for entering orbit around Mars, an easier destination to reach than either Vesta or Ceres, visit this earlier log.) So far, our advanced spacecraft has changed its own velocity by 23,800 mph (38,400 kilometers per hour) since separating from its rocket, far in excess of what any other mission has achieved propulsively. (The previous record was held by DS1.)

Dawn is exceptionally frugal in its use of xenon propellant. In this phase of the mission, the engine expends only a quarter of a pound (120 grams) per day, or the equivalent of about 2.5 fluid ounces (75 milliliters) per day. So although the thrust is very efficient, it is also very gentle. If you hold a single sheet of paper in your hand, it will push on your hand harder than the ion engine pushes on the spacecraft at maximum thrust. At today’s throttle level, it would take the distant explorer almost 11 days to accelerate from zero to 60 mph (97 kilometers per hour). That may not evoke the concept of a drag racer. But in the zero-gravity, frictionless conditions of spaceflight, the effect of this whisper-like thrust can build up. Instead of thrusting for 11 days, if we thrust for a month, or a year, or as Dawn already has, for more than five years, we can achieve fantastically high velocity. Ion propulsion delivers acceleration with patience.

Most spacecraft coast most of the time, following their repetitive orbits like planets do. They may use the main engine for a few minutes or perhaps an hour or two throughout the entire mission. With ion propulsion, in contrast, the spacecraft may spend most of its time in powered flight. Dawn has flown for 69% of its time in space emitting a cool blue-green glow from one of its ion engines. (With three ion engines, Dawn outdoes the Star Wars TIE (twin ion engine) fighters.)

OpNav 5 images zoomed in
As Dawn maneuvers into orbit, its trajectory takes it to the opposite side of Ceres from the sun, providing these crescent views. These pictures (part of the OpNav 5 activity), were taken on March 1 at a distance of 30,000 miles (49,000 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The robotic probe uses its gentle thrust to gradually reshape its path through space rather than simply following the natural course that a planet would. After it escaped from Vesta’s gravitational clutches, it slowly spiraled outward from the sun, climbing the solar system hill, making its heliocentric orbit more and more and more like Ceres’. By the time it was in the vicinity of the dwarf planet today, both were traveling around the sun at more than 38,600 mph (62,100 kilometers per hour). Their trajectories were nearly identical, however, so the difference in their speeds was only 100 mph (160 kilometers per hour), or less than 0.3 percent of the total. Flying like a crackerjack spaceship pilot, Dawn elegantly used the light touch of its ion engine to be at a position and velocity that it could ease gracefully into orbit. At a distance of 37,700 miles (60,600 kilometers), Ceres reached out and tenderly took the newcomer from Earth into its permanent gravitational embrace.

If you had been in space watching the event, you would have been cold, hungry and hypoxic. But it would not have looked much different from the 1,885 days of ion thrust that had preceded it. The spacecraft was perched atop its blue-green pillar of xenon ions, patiently changing its course, as it does for so much of quiet cruise. But now, at one moment it was flying too fast for Ceres’ gravity to hang on to it, and the next moment it had slowed just enough that it was in orbit. Had it stopped thrusting at that point, it would have continued looping around the dwarf planet. But it did not stop. Instead, it is working now to reshape its orbit around Ceres. As we saw in November, its orbital acrobatics first will take it up to an altitude of 47,000 miles (75,000 kilometers) on March 19 before it swoops down to 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) on April 23 to begin its intensive observations in the orbit designated RC3.

In fact, Dawn’s arrival today really is simply a consequence of the route it is taking to reach that lower orbit next month. Navigators did not aim for arriving today. Rather, they plotted a course that began at Vesta and goes to RC3 (with a new design along the way), and it happens that the conditions for capture into orbit occurred this morning. As promised last month, we present here a different view of the skillful maneuvering by this veteran space traveler.

This animation gives a three-dimensional view of Dawn’s complex approach to Ceres. The spacecraft deftly maneuvers into orbit with its ion propulsion system, flying to RC3 orbit, which is achieved when the thrust is turned off. (The size of Ceres is exaggerated compared to the size of the orbit here.) At the end, the viewpoint shifts to provide another perspective on the unique trajectory.

If Dawn had stopped thrusting before Ceres could exert its gravitational control, it wouldn’t have flown very far away. The spacecraft had already made their paths around the sun very similar, and the ion propulsion system provides such exceptional flexibility to the mission that controllers could have guided it into orbit some other time. This was not a one-time, all-or-nothing event.

So the flight team was not tense. They had no need to observe it or make a spectacle out of it. Mission control remained quiet. The drama is not in whether the mission will succeed or fail, in whether a single glitch could cause a catastrophic loss, in whether even a tiny mistake could spell doom. Rather, the drama is in the opportunity to unveil the wonderful secrets of a fascinating relict from the dawn of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago, a celestial orb that has beckoned for more than two centuries, the first dwarf planet discovered.

Dawn usually flies with its radio transmitter turned off (devoting its electricity instead to the power-hungry ion engine), and so it entered orbit silently. As it happened, a routine telecommunications session was scheduled about an hour after attaining orbit, at 5:36 a.m. PST. (It’s only coincidence it was that soon. At Vesta, it was more than 25 hours between arrival and the next radio contact.) For primary communications, Dawn pauses thrusting to point its main antenna to Earth, but other times, as in this case, it is programmed to use one of its auxiliary antennas to transmit a weaker signal without stopping its engine, whispering just enough for engineers to verify that it remains healthy.

The Deep Space Network’s exquisitely sensitive 230-foot (70-meter) diameter antenna in Goldstone, Calif., picked up the faint signal from across the solar system on schedule and relayed it to Dawn mission control. One person was in the room (and yes, he was cleared to enter). He works with the antenna operator to ensure the communications session goes smoothly, and he is always ready to contact others on the flight team if any anomalies arise. In this case, none did, and it was a quiet morning as usual. The mission director checked in with him shortly after the data started to trickle in, and they had a friendly, casual conversation that included discussing some of the telemetry that indicated the spacecraft was still performing its routine ion thrusting. The determination that Dawn was in orbit was that simple. Confirming that it was following its flight plan was all that was needed to know it had entered orbit. This beautifully choreographed celestial dance is now a pas de deux.

As casual and tranquil as all that sounds, and as logical and systematic as the whole process is, the reality is that the mission director was excited. There was no visible hoopla, no audible fanfare, but the experience was powerful fuel for the passionate fires that burn within.

As soundlessly as a spacecraft gliding through the void, the realization emerges …

Dawn made it!!

It is in orbit around a distant world!!

Yes, it’s clear from the technical details, but it is more intensely reflected in the silent pounding of a heart that has spent a lifetime yearning to know the cosmos. Years and years of hard work devoted to this grand undertaking, constant hopes and dreams and fears of all possible futures, uncounted challenges (some initially appearing insurmountable) and a seeming infinitude of decisions along the way from early concepts through a real interplanetary spacecraft flying on an ion beam beyond the sun.

And then, a short, relaxed chat over a few bits of routine data that report the same conditions as usual on the distant robot. But today they mean something different.

They mean we did it!!

Everyone on the team will experience the news that comes in a congratulatory email in their own way, in the silence and privacy of their own thoughts. But it means the same to everyone.

We did it!!

And it’s not only the flight team. Humankind!! With our relentless curiosity, our insatiable hunger for knowledge, our noble spirit of adventure, we all share in the experience of reaching out from our humble home to the stars.

Together, we did it!!!

It was a good way to begin the day. It was Dawn at Ceres.

This video overview of the mission at Ceres is a great way to start your day, but you can enjoy it at any time.

Let’s bring into perspective the cosmic landscape on which this remarkable adventure is now taking place. Imagine Earth reduced to the size of a soccer ball. On this scale, the International Space Station would orbit at an altitude of a bit more than one-quarter of an inch (seven millimeters). The moon would be a billiard ball almost 21 feet (6.4 meters) away. The sun, the conductor of the solar system orchestra, would be 79 feet (24 meters) across at a distance of 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers). But even more remote, Dawn would be 5.3 miles (8.6 kilometers) away. (Just a few months ago, when the spacecraft was on the opposite side of the sun from Earth, it would have been more than six miles, or almost 10 kilometers, from from the soccer ball.) Tremendously far now from its erstwhile home, it would be only a little over a yard (a meter) from its new residence. (By the end of this year, Dawn will be slightly closer to it than the space station is to Earth, a quarter of an inch, or six millimeters.) That distant world, Ceres, the largest object between Mars and Jupiter, would be five-eighths of an inch (1.6 centimeters) across, about the size of a grape. Of course a grape has a higher water content than Ceres, but we can be sure that exploring this intriguing world of rock and ice will be much sweeter!

As part of getting to know its new neighborhood, Dawn has been hunting for moons of Ceres. Telescopic studies had not revealed any, but if there were a moon smaller than about half a mile (one kilometer), it probably would not have been discovered. The spacecraft’s unique vantage point provides an opportunity to look for any that might have escaped detection. Many pictures have been taken specifically for this purpose, and scientists scrutinize them and all of the other photographs for any indication of moons. While the search will continue, so far, no picture has shown evidence of companions orbiting Ceres.

And yet we know that as of today, Ceres most certainly does have one. Its name is Dawn!

Dawn is 37,800 miles (60,800 kilometers) from Ceres, or 16 percent of the average distance between Earth and the moon. It is also 3.33 AU (310 million miles, or 498 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,230 times as far as the moon and 3.36 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 55 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
6:00 a.m. PST March 6, 2015

› Read more entries from Marc Rayman's Dawn Journal


  • Marc Rayman

Ceres Op Nav 3 animated gif

Dear Fine and Dawndy Readers,

The Dawn spacecraft is performing flawlessly as it conducts the first exploration of the first dwarf planet. Each new picture of Ceres reveals exciting and surprising new details about a fascinating and enigmatic orb that has been glimpsed only as a smudge of light for more than two centuries. And yet as that fuzzy little blob comes into sharper focus, it seems to grow only more perplexing.

Dawn is showing us exotic scenery on a world that dates back to the dawn of the solar system, more than 4.5 billion years ago. Craters large and small remind us that Ceres lives in the rough and tumble environment of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and collectively they will help scientists develop a deeper understanding of the history and nature not only of Ceres itself but also of the solar system.

Even as we discover more about Ceres, some mysteries only deepen. It certainly does not require sophisticated scientific insight to be captivated by the bright spots. What are they? At this point, the clearest answer is that the answer is unknown. One of the great rewards of exploring the cosmos is uncovering new questions, and this one captures the imagination of everyone who gazes at the pictures sent back from deep space.

Bright spots on Ceres
Dawn took this picture in RC2. The improved resolution shows that the intriguing bright spot from earlier pictures is actually two bright spots. What a wonderful mystery this is! Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
› Full image and caption

Other intriguing features newly visible on the unfamiliar landscape further assure us that there will be much more to see and to learn -- and probably much more to puzzle over -- when Dawn flies in closer and acquires new photographs and myriad other measurements. Over the course of this year, as the spacecraft spirals to lower and lower orbits, the view will continue to improve. In the lowest orbit, the pictures will display detail well over one hundred times finer than the RC2 pictures returned a few days ago (and shown below). Right now, however, Dawn is not getting closer to Ceres. On course and on schedule for entering orbit on March 6, Earth's robotic ambassador is slowly separating from its destination.

"Slowly" is the key. Dawn is in the vicinity of Ceres and is not leaving. The adventurer has traveled more than 900 million miles (1.5 billion kilometers) since departing from Vesta in 2012, devoting most of the time to using its advanced ion propulsion system to reshape its orbit around the sun to match Ceres' orbit. Now that their paths are so similar, the spacecraft is receding from the massive behemoth at the leisurely pace of about 35 mph (55 kilometers per hour), even as they race around the sun together at 38,700 mph (62,300 kilometers per hour). The probe is expertly flying an intricate course that would be the envy of any hotshot spaceship pilot. To reach its first observational orbit -- a circular path from pole to pole and back at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) -- Dawn is now taking advantage not only of ion propulsion but also the gravity of Ceres.

On Feb. 23, the spacecraft was at its closest to Ceres yet, only 24,000 miles (less than 39,000 kilometers), or one-tenth of the separation between Earth and the moon. Momentum will carry it farther away for a while, so as it performs the complex cosmic choreography, Dawn will not come this close to its permanent partner again for six weeks. Well before then, it will be taken firmly and forever into Ceres' gentle gravitational hold.

The photographs Dawn takes during this approach phase serve several purposes. Besides fueling the fires of curiosity that burn within everyone who looks to the night sky in wonder or who longs to share in the discoveries of celestial secrets, the images are vital to engineers and scientists as they prepare for the next phase of exploration.

These two views of Ceres were acquired by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 12, 2015
Dawn acquired these two pictures of Ceres on Feb. 12 at a distance of 52,000 miles (83,000 kilometers) during the first "rotation characterization," or RC1. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
› Full image and caption


These two views of Ceres were acquired by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 12, 2015
Dawn acquired these two pictures of Ceres on Feb. 19 at a distance of 28,000 miles (46,000 kilometers) in RC2. Dawn's trajectory took it north between RC1 and RC2, so the terrain within view of its camera is farther north here than in RC1. The angle of the sunlight is different as well. Nevertheless, each of these two perspectives is close in longitude to the two above, so some features apparent here are also visible in the RC1 photos. The careful observer will note that these pictures are very cool, especially when compared with earlier ones from Dawn and the best from Hubble Space Telescope, as shown in last month's Dawn Journal. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
› Full image and caption

The primary purpose of the pictures is for "optical navigation" (OpNav), to ensure the ship accurately sails to its planned orbital port. Dawn is the first spacecraft to fly into orbit around a massive solar system world that had not previously been visited by a spacecraft. Just as when it reached its first deep-space target, the fascinating protoplanet Vesta, mission controllers have to discover the nature of the destination as they proceed. They bootstrap their way in, measuring many characteristics with increasing accuracy as they go, including its location, its mass and the direction of its rotation axis.

Let's consider this last parameter. Think of a spinning ball. (If the ball is large enough, you could call it a planet.) It turns around an axis, and the two ends of the axis are the north and south poles. The precise direction of the axis is important for our mission because in each of the four observation orbits (previews of which were presented in February, May, June and August), the spacecraft needs to fly over the poles. Polar orbits ensure that as Dawn loops around, and Ceres rotates beneath it every nine hours, the explorer eventually will have the opportunity to see the entire surface. Therefore, the team needs to establish the location of the rotation axis to navigate to the desired orbit.

We can imagine extending the rotation axis far outside the ball, even all the way to the stars. Current residents of Earth, for example, know that their planet's north pole happens to point very close to a star appropriately named Polaris (or the North Star), part of an asterism known as the Little Dipper in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear). The south pole, of course, points in exactly the opposite direction, to the constellation Octans (the Octant), but is not aligned with any salient star.

With their measurements of how Ceres rotates, the team is zeroing in on the orientation of its poles. We now know that residents of (and, for that mater, visitors to) the northern hemisphere there would see the pole pointing toward an unremarkable region of the sky in Draco (the Dragon). Those in the southern hemisphere would note the pole pointing toward a similarly unimpressive part of Volans (the Flying Fish). (How appropriate it is that that pole is directed toward a constellation with that name will be known only after scientists advance their understanding of the possibility of a subsurface ocean at Ceres.)

The orientation of Ceres'; axis proves convenient for Dawn's exploration. Earthlings are familiar with the consequences of their planet's axis being tilted by about 23 degrees. Seasons are caused by the annual motion of the sun between 23 degrees north latitude and 23 degrees south. A large area around each pole remains in the dark during winter. Vesta's axis is tipped 27 degrees, and when Dawn arrived, the high northern latitudes were not illuminated by the sun. The probe took advantage of its extraordinary maneuverability to fly to a special mapping orbit late in its residence there, after the sun had shifted north. That will not be necessary at Ceres. That world's axis is tipped at a much smaller angle, so throughout a Cerean year (lasting 4.6 Earth years), the sun stays between 4 degrees north latitude and 4 degrees south. Seasons are much less dramatic. Among Dawn's many objectives is to photograph Ceres. Because the sun is always near the equator, the illumination near the poles will change little. It is near the beginning of southern hemisphere winter on Ceres now, but the region around the south pole hidden in hibernal darkness is tiny. Except for possible shadowing by local variations in topography (as in deep craters), well over 99 percent of the dwarf planet's terrain will be exposed to sunlight each day.

Guiding Dawn from afar, the operations team incorporates the new information about Ceres into occasional updates to the flight plan, providing the spacecraft with new instructions on the exact direction and throttle level to use for the ion engine. As they do so, subtle aspects of the trajectory change. Last month we described the details of the plan for observing Ceres throughout the four-month approach phase and predicted that some of the numbers could change slightly. So, careful readers, for your convenience, here is the table from January, now with minor updates.

Beginning of activity in Pacific Time zone Distance from Dawn to Ceres in miles (kilometers) Ceres diameter in pixels Resolution in miles (kilometers) per pixel Resolution compared to Hubble Illuminated portion of disk Activity
Dec 1, 2014 740,000
(1.2 million)
9 70
0.25 94% Camera calibration
Jan 13, 2015 238,000
27 22
0.83 95% OpNav 1
Jan 25 147,000
43 14
1.3 96% OpNav 2
Feb 3 91,000
70 8.5
2.2 97% OpNav 3
Feb 12 52,000
122 4.9
3.8 98% RC1
Feb 19 28,000
222 2.7
7.0 87% RC2
Feb 25 25,000
255 2.3
8.0 44% OpNav 4
Mar 1 30,000
207 2.9
6.5 23% OpNav 5
Apr 10 21,000
306 1.9
9.6 17% OpNav 6
Apr 14 14,000
453 1.3
14 49% OpNav 7


In addition to changes based on discoveries about the nature of Ceres, some changes are dictated by more mundane considerations (to the extent that there is anything mundane about flying a spacecraft in the vicinity of an alien world more than a thousand times farther from Earth than the moon). For example, to accommodate changes in the schedule for the use of the Deep Space Network, some of the imaging sessions shifted by a few hours, which can make small changes in the corresponding views of Ceres.

The only important difference between the table as presented in January and this month, however, is not to be found in the numbers. It is that OpNav 3, RC1 and RC2 are now in the past, each having been completed perfectly.

As always, if you prefer to save yourself the time and effort of the multi-billion-mile (multi-billion-kilometer) interplanetary journey to Ceres, you can simply go here to see the latest views from Dawn. (The Dawn project is eager to share pictures promptly with the public. The science team has the responsibility of analyzing and interpreting the images for scientific publication. The need for accuracy and scientific review of the data slows the interpretation and release of the pictures. But just as with all of the marvelous findings from Vesta, everything from Ceres will be available as soon as practicable.)

In November we delved into some of the details of Dawn's graceful approach to Ceres, and last month we considered how the trajectory affected the scene presented to Dawn's camera. Now that we have updated the table, we can enhance a figure from both months that showed the craft's path as it banks into orbit and maneuvers to its first observational orbit. (As a reminder, the diagram illustrates only two of the three dimensions of the ship's complicated route. Another diagram in November showed another perspective, and we will include a different view next month.)

Partial view of Dawn's approach trajectory to Ceres
Section of Dawn's approach trajectory. We are looking down on the north pole of Ceres. (Readers who reside in the constellation Draco will readily recognize this perspective). The sun is off the figure far to the left. The spacecraft flies in from the left and then is captured (enters orbit) on the way to the apex of its orbit. It gets closer to Ceres during the first part of its approach but then recedes for a while before coming in still closer at the end. When Dawn is on the right side of the figure, it sees only a crescent of Ceres, because the illumination is from the left. The trajectory is solid where Dawn is thrusting with its ion engine, which is most of the time. The labels show where it pauses to turn, point at Ceres, conduct the indicated observation, turn to point its main antenna to Earth, transmit its precious findings, turn back to the orientation needed for thrusting, and then restart the ion engine. Because RC1 and RC2 observations extend for a full Cerean day of more than nine hours, those periods are longer, both to collect data and to radio the results to Earth. Note that there are four periods on the right side of the figure between capture and OpNav 6 when Dawn pauses thrusting for telecommunications and radio navigation but does not take pictures, as explained here. Image credit: NASA/JPL
› View full image

We can zoom out to see where the earlier OpNavs were.

Full view of Dawn's approach trajectory to Ceres
All of Dawn's observations during the approach phase. Note how much shorter this caption is than the one above, despite the similarity of the figures. Image credit: NASA/JPL
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As the table and figures indicate, in OpNav 6, when Ceres and the sun are in the same general direction from Dawn's vantage point, only a small portion of the illuminated terrain will be visible. The left side of Ceres will be in daylight, and most of the hemisphere facing the spacecraft will be in the darkness of night. To get an idea of what the shape of the crescent will be, terrestrial readers can use the moon on March 16. It will be up much of the day, setting in the middle of the afternoon, and it will be comparable to the crescent Dawn will observe on April 10. (Of course, the exact shape will depend on your observing location and what time you look, but this serves as a rough preview.) Fortunately, our spacecraft does not have to contend with bad weather, but you might, so we have generously scheduled a backup opportunity for you. The moon will be new on March 20, and the crescent on March 23 will be similar to what it was on March 16. It will rise in the mid morning and be up until well after the sun sets.

Photographing Ceres as it arcs into orbit atop a blue-green beam of xenon ions, setting the stage for more than a year of detailed investigations with its suite of sophisticated sensors, Dawn is sailing into the history books. No spacecraft has reached a dwarf planet before. No spacecraft has orbited two extraterrestrial destinations before. This amazing mission is powered by the insatiable curiosity and extraordinary ingenuity of creatures on a planet far, far away. And it carries all of them along with it on an ambitious journey that grows only more exciting as it continues. Humankind is about to witness scenes never before seen and perhaps never even imagined. Dawn is taking all of us on a daring adventure to a remote and unknown part of the cosmos. Prepare to be awed.

Dawn is 24,600 miles (39,600 kilometers) from Ceres, or 10 percent of the average distance between Earth and the moon. It is also 3.42 AU (318 million miles, or 512 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,330 times as far as the moon and 3.46 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 57 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
7:00 a.m. PST February 25, 2015

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  • Marc Rayman

Animated Gif of Ceres

Dear Abundawnt Readers

The dwarf planet Ceres is a giant mystery. Drawn on by the irresistible lure of exploring this exotic, alien world, Dawn is closing in on it. The probe is much closer to Ceres than the moon is to Earth.

And now it is even closer …

And now it is closer still!

What has been glimpsed as little more than a faint smudge of light amid the stars for more than two centuries is finally coming into focus. The first dwarf planet discovered (129 years before Pluto), the largest body between the sun and Pluto that a spacecraft has not yet visited, is starting to reveal its secrets. Dawn is seeing sights never before beheld, and all of humankind is along for the extraordinary experience.

We have had a preview of Dawn’s approach phase, and in November we looked at the acrobatics the spacecraft performs as it glides gracefully into orbit. Now the adventurer is executing those intricate plans, and it is flying beautifully, just the way a seasoned space traveler should.

Dawn’s unique method of patiently, gradually reshaping its orbit around the sun with its ion propulsion system is nearly at its end. Just as two cars may drive together at high speed and thus travel at low speed relative to each other, Dawn is now close to matching Ceres’ heliocentric orbital motion. Together, they are traveling around the sun at nearly 39,000 mph (almost 64,000 kilometers per hour), or 10.8 miles per second (17.4 kilometers per second). But the spaceship is closing in on the world ahead at the quite modest relative speed of about 250 mph (400 kilometers per hour), much less than is typical for interplanetary spaceflight.

Dawn has begun its approach imaging campaign, and the pictures are wonderfully exciting. This month, we will take a more careful look at the plans for photographing Ceres. Eager readers may jump directly to the summary table, but others may want to emulate the spacecraft by taking a more leisurely approach to it, which may aid in understanding some details.

While our faithful Dawn is the star of this bold deep-space adventure (along with protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres), the real talent is behind the scenes, as is often the case with celebrities. The success of the mission depends on the dedication and expertise of the members of the Dawn flight team, no farther from Earth than the eighth floor of JPL’s building 264 (although occasionally your correspondent goes on the roof to enjoy the sights of the evening sky). They are carefully guiding the distant spacecraft on its approach trajectory and ensuring it accomplishes all of its tasks.

To keep Dawn on course to Ceres, navigators need a good fix on where the probe and its target are. Both are far, far from Earth, so the job is not easy. In addition to the extraordinarily sophisticated but standard methods of navigating a remote interplanetary spacecraft, using the radio signal to measure its distance and speed, Dawn’s controllers use another technique now that it is in the vicinity of its destination.

From the vantage point of Earth, astronomers can determine distant Ceres’ location remarkably well, and Dawn’s navigators achieve impressive accuracy in establishing the craft’s position. But to enter orbit, still greater accuracy is required. Therefore, Dawn photographs Ceres against the background of known stars, and the pictures are analyzed to pin down the location of the ship relative to the celestial harbor it is approaching. To distinguish this method from the one by which Dawn is usually navigated, this supplementary technique is generally known as “optical navigation.” Unable to suppress their geekiness (or, at least, unmotivated to do so), Dawn team members refer to this as OpNav. There are seven dedicated OpNav imaging sessions during the four-month approach phase, along with two other imaging sessions. (There will also be two more OpNavs in the spiral descent from RC3 to survey orbit.)

The positions of the spacecraft and dwarf planet are already determined well enough with the conventional navigation methods that controllers know which particular stars are near Ceres from Dawn’s perspective. It is the analysis of precisely where Ceres appears relative to those stars that will yield the necessary navigational refinement. Later, when Dawn is so close that the colossus occupies most of the camera’s view, stars will no longer be visible in the pictures. Then the optical navigation will be based on determining the location of the spacecraft with respect to specific surface features that have been charted in previous images.

To execute an OpNav, Dawn suspends ion thrusting and turns to point its camera at Ceres. It usually spends one or two hours taking photos (and bonus measurements with its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer). Then it turns to point its main antenna to Earth and transmits its findings across the solar system to the Deep Space Network.

Animated gif of series of images of Ceres takien by Dawn spacecrat on Jan. 25, 2015

This animation of Ceres rotating was made by combining images taken by the Dawn spacecraft on Jan. 25 over the course of one hour in OpNav 2. Dawn was 147,000 miles (237,000 kilometers) from Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

While it is turning once again to resume ion thrusting, navigators are already starting to extract information from the images to calculate where the probe is relative to its destination. Experts update the design of the trajectory the spacecraft must follow to reach its intended orbital position and fine-tune the corresponding ion thrust flight plan. At the next communications session, the revised instructions are radioed back across the solar system, and then the reliable robot carries them out. This process is repeated throughout the approach phase.

Dawn turned to observe Vesta during that approach phase more often than it does on approach to Ceres, and the reason is simple. It has lost two of its four reaction wheels, devices used to help turn or stabilize the craft in the zero-gravity, frictionless conditions of spaceflight. (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.)

Dawn’s sentient colleagues at JPL, along with excellent support from Orbital Sciences Corporation, have applied their remarkable creativity, tenacity and technical acumen to devise a strategy that allows all the original objectives of exploring Ceres to be met regardless of the condition of the wheels, even the (currently) healthy ones. Your correspondent refers to this as the “zero reaction wheel plan” One of the many methods that contributed to this surprising resilience was a substantial reduction in the number of turns during all remaining phases of the mission, thus conserving the precious hydrazine propellant used by the small jets of the reaction control system. Guided by their successful experience at Vesta, experts determined that they could accommodate fewer OpNavs during the approach to Ceres, thus saving turns. (We will return to the topic of hydrazine conservation below.)

The images serve several purposes besides navigation. Of course, they provide a tantalizing preview of the intriguing world observed from Earth since 1801. Each picture whets our appetite! What will Ceres look like as it comes into sharper focus? Will we see evidence of a subsurface ocean? What unexpected shapes and structures will we find? What strange new features will show up? Just what is that bright spot? Quite simply: we don’t know. It would be a pretty good idea to send a spacecraft there to find out!

Scientists scrutinize all the photos for moons of Ceres, and OpNavs 3-7 will include many extra images with exposures chosen to help reveal moons. In addition, hundreds more pictures will be taken of the space around Ceres in the hours before and after OpNav 3 to allow an even more thorough search.

On two occasions during the approach, Dawn will take images and spectra throughout a complete Ceres rotation of slightly over nine hours, or one Cerean day. During that time, Dawn’s position will not change significantly, so it will be almost as if the spacecraft hovers in place as the dwarf planet pirouettes beneath its watchful eye, exhibiting most of the surface. These “rotation characterizations” (known by the stirring names RC1 and RC2) will provide the first global perspectives.

As Dawn flies into orbit, it arcs around Ceres. In November, we described the route into orbit in detail, and one of the figures there is reproduced here. Dawn will slip into Ceres’ gravitational embrace on the night of March 5 (PST). But as the figure shows, its initial elliptical orbit will carry it to higher altitudes before it swoops back down. As a result, pictures of Ceres will grow for a while, then shrink and then grow again.

Dawn’s approach trajectory. We are looking down on the north pole of Ceres. The sun is off the figure far to the left. The spacecraft flies in from the left and then is captured on the way to the apex of its orbit. It gets closer to Ceres during the first part of its approach but then recedes for a while before coming in still closer at the end. Lighting by the sun is not depicted here, but when Dawn is on the right side of the figure, it only sees a crescent of Ceres, which is illuminated from the left. (The white circles are at one-day intervals.) Image credit: NASA/JPL

Because of the changing direction to Ceres, Dawn does not always see a fully illuminated disk, just as the moon goes through its familiar phases as its position relative to the sun changes. The hemisphere of the moon facing the sun is bright and the other is dark. The half facing Earth may include part of the lit side and part of the dark side. Sometimes we see a full moon, sometimes gibbous, and sometimes a thin crescent.

The table shows what fraction of Ceres is illuminated from Dawn’s perspective. Seeing a full moon would correspond to 100 percent illumination. A half moon would be 50 percent, and a new moon would be zero percent. In OpNav 6, when Ceres is 18 percent illuminated, it will be a delicate crescent, like the moon about four days after it’s new.

Four views of Ceres taken by the Hubble telescope
Four views of Ceres as it rotates, as seen with Hubble Space Telescope, were the best we had before OpNav 2. All of Dawn’s pictures from now on will show finer detail. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Parker (Southwest Research Institute), P. Thomas (Cornell University), and L. McFadden (University of Maryland, College Park)

OpNav images of a narrow crescent won’t contain enough information to warrant the expenditure of hydrazine in all that turning. Moreover, the camera’s precision optics and sensitive detector, designed for revealing the landscapes of Vesta and Ceres, cannot tolerate looking too close to the sun, even as far from the brilliant star as it is now. Therefore, no pictures will be taken in March and early April when Dawn is far on the opposite side of Ceres from the sun. By the end of April, the probe will have descended to its first observational orbit (RC3), where it will begin its intensive observations.

The closer Dawn is to Ceres, the larger the orb appears to its camera, and the table includes the (approximate) diameter the full disk would be, measured in the number of camera pixels. To display greater detail, each pixel must occupy a smaller portion of the surface. So the “resolution” of the picture indicates how sharp Dawn’s view is.

We also describe the pictures in comparison to the best that have been obtained with Hubble Space Telescope. In Hubble’s pictures, each pixel covered about 19 miles (30 kilometers). Now, after a journey of more than seven years through the solar system, Dawn is finally close enough to Ceres that its view surpasses that of the powerful telescope. By the time Dawn is in its lowest altitude orbit at the end of this year, its pictures will be well over 800 times better than Hubble’s and more than 600 times better than the OpNav 2 pictures from Jan. 25. This is going to be a fantastic year of discovery!

Beginning of activity in Pacific Time zone Distance from Dawn to Ceres in miles (kilometers) Ceres diameter in pixels Resolution in miles (kilometers) per pixel Resolution compared to Hubble Illuminated portion of disk Activity
Dec 1, 2014 740,000
(1.2 million)
9 70
0.25 94% Camera calibration
Jan 13, 2015 238,000
27 22
0.83 95% OpNav 1
Jan 25 147,000
43 14
1.3 96% OpNav 2
Feb 3 91,000
70 8.5
2.2 97% OpNav 3
Feb 12 52,000
121 4.9
3.8 98% RC1
Feb 19 28,000
221 2.7
7.0 87% RC2
Feb 25 25,000
253 2.3
8.0 44% OpNav 4
Mar 1 30,000
207 2.9
6.5 22% OpNav 5
Apr 10 21,000
304 2.0
9.6 18% OpNav 6
Apr 15 14,000
455 1.3
14 50% OpNav 7

Some of the numbers may change slightly as Dawn’s trajectory is refined and even as estimates of the strength of Ceres’ gravitational tug improve. (Dawn is already feeling that pull, even though it is not yet in orbit.) Still, this should help you fill out your social calendar for the next few months.

To get views like those Dawn has, you can build your own spaceship and fly it deep into the heart of the main asteroid belt to this intriguing world of rock and ice. Or you can visit our Ceres image gallery to see pictures as soon as they are released. If you chose the first option, use your hydrazine wisely!

As we discussed above, to explore Ceres without the use of the reaction wheels that were essential to the original design, mission controllers have worked very hard to conserve hydrazine. Let’s see how productive that effort has been. (You should be able to follow the story here without careful focus on the numbers. They are here for the more technically oriented readers, accountants and our old friends the Numerivores.)

Dawn launched in Sept. 2007 with 101 pounds (45.6 kilograms) of hydrazine. The ship escaped from Vesta in Sept. 2012, four weeks after the second reaction wheel failed during the climb out of Vesta’s gravitational hole. (By the way, Dawn is now more than one thousand times farther from Vesta than it is from Ceres. It is even farther from Vesta than Earth is from the sun!) At the beginning of the long interplanetary flight to Ceres, it still had 71.2 pounds (32.3 kilograms) left. As it had expended less than one-third of the original supply through the end of the Vesta expedition, that might seem like plenty. But it was not. Without the reaction wheels, subsequent operations would consume much more hydrazine. Indeed, engineers determined that even if they still had the entire amount that had been onboard at launch, it would not be enough. The Ceres objectives were at serious risk!

The flight team undertook an aggressive campaign to conserve hydrazine. They conceived more than 50 new candidate techniques for reducing hydrazine consumption in the 30-month journey to Ceres and the 18 months of Ceres operations and systematically but quickly assessed every one of them.

The team initially calculated that the long interplanetary flight between the departure from Vesta and the beginning of the Ceres approach phase would consume 27.6 pounds (12.5 kilograms) of hydrazine even if there were no errors, no glitches, no problems and no changes in the plans. Following the intensive conservation work, they determined that the spacecraft might instead be able to complete all of its assignments for only 9.7 pounds (4.4 kilograms), an astonishing 65 percent reduction. (Keep track of that mass through the end of the next paragraph.) That would translate directly into more hydrazine being available for the exploration of Ceres. They devised many new methods of conducting the mission at Ceres as well, estimating today that it will cost less than 42.5 pounds (19.3 kilograms) with the zero reaction wheel plan. (If the two remaining wheels operate when called upon in the lowest orbit, they will provide a bonus reduction in hydrazine use.)

Dawn’s two years and four months of interplanetary cruise concluded on Dec. 26, 2014, when the approach phase began. Although the team had computed that they might squeeze the consumption down to as low as 9.7 pounds (4.4 kilograms), it’s one thing to predict it and it’s another to achieve it. Changes to plans become necessary, and not every detail can be foreseen. As recounted in October, the trip was not entirely free of problems, as a burst of cosmic radiation interrupted the smooth operations. Now that the cruise phase is complete, we can measure how well it really went. Dawn used 9.7 pounds (4.4 kilograms), exactly as predicted in 2012. Isn’t flying spacecraft through the forbidding depths of the interplanetary void amazing?

This success provides high confidence in our ability to accomplish all of the plans at Ceres (even if the remaining reaction wheels are not operable). Now that the explorer is so close, it is starting to reap the rewards of the daring 3.0-billion-mile (4.9-billion-kilometer) journey to an ancient world that has long awaited a terrestrial emissary. As Dawn continues its approach phase, our growing anticipation will be fueled by thrilling new pictures, each offering a new perspective on this relict from the dawn of the solar system. Very soon, patience, diligence and unwavering determination will be rewarded with new knowledge and new insight into the nature of the cosmos.

Dawn is 121,000 miles (195,000 kilometers) from Ceres, or half the average distance between Earth and the moon. It is also 3.63 AU (338 million miles, or 544 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,390 times as far as the moon and 3.69 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
7:00 p.m. PST January 29, 2014

› Read more entries from Marc Rayman's Dawn Journal


  • Marc Rayman

Ceres as seen by NASA's Dawn spacecraft

Ceres as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

Pardawn Me, Dear Readers,

Far away from Earthlings who look forward to a new year, Dawn looks forward to a new world. On the far side of the sun, the interplanetary explorer is closing in on Ceres, using its advanced ion propulsion system to match solar orbits with the dwarf planet.

Since breaking out of orbit around the giant protoplanet Vesta in September 2012, the spaceship has patiently flown in interplanetary cruise. That long mission phase is over, and now Dawn is starting the Ceres chapter of its extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition. Configured for its approach phase, the craft is following a new and carefully designed course described in detail last month. In March it will slip ever so gracefully into orbit for an ambitious and exciting exploration of the alien world ahead.

Over the past year, we have provided previews of the major activities during all the phases of Dawn’s mission at Ceres. This month, let’s take a look at Ceres itself, an intriguing and mysterious orb that has beckoned for more than two centuries. Now, finally, after so long, Earth is answering the cosmic invitation, and an ambassador from our planet is about to take up permanent residence there. Over the course of Dawn’s grand adventure, our knowledge will rocket far, far beyond all that has been learned before.

There can be two accounts of Ceres: its own history, which dates back to near the dawn of the solar system almost 4.6 billion years ago, and its history in the scope of human knowledge, which is somewhat shorter. Both are rich topics, with much more than we can cover here (or in the first log for this entire mission), but let’s touch on a few tidbits. We begin with the latter history.

In 1800, the known solar system contained seven planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth (home to some of our readers), Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. This reflected a new and sophisticated scientific understanding, because Uranus had first been noticed in telescopes not long before, in 1781. (The other planets had been known to ancient sky watchers.) Even before William Herschel’s fortuitous sighting of a planet beyond Saturn, astronomers had wondered about the gap between Mars and Jupiter and speculated about the possibility of a planet there. Although some astronomers had searched, their efforts had not yielded a new planet.

Astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi was not looking for a planet on Jan. 1, 1801, but he spotted an unfamiliar dot of light that moved slowly among the stars. He named it for Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, and if you had cereal this morning, you have already had an etymological connection with the goddess.

The Dawn project worked with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to formalize a plan for names on Ceres that builds upon and broadens Piazzi’s theme. Craters will be named for gods and goddesses of agriculture and vegetation from world mythology. Other features will be named for agricultural festivals.

Because Ceres was fainter than the other known planets, it was evident that it was smaller. Nevertheless, many astronomers considered it to be a planet too.

It is worth noting the significance of this. Modern astronomy had chanced upon only one other planet, so Piazzi’s discovery was A Big Deal. When a new chemical element was found a couple of years later, it was named cerium in tribute to the new planet Ceres. (Uranus had been similarly honored with the 1789 naming of uranium. That element’s peculiar property of emitting radiation would not be known for another century.)

In the six years following the discovery of Ceres, three more bodies were detected orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. (One of them is Vesta, now known in spectacular detail thanks to Dawn’s extensive exploration in 2011-2012.) There then ensued a gap of more than 38 years before another was found, so for well over a generation, the sun’s family of planets was unchanged.

So if you had been reading about all this 200 years ago, there would have been at least two important differences from now. One is that your Internet connection would have been considerably slower. The other is that you might have learned in school or elsewhere that Ceres was a planet.

In 1846, a planet was discovered beyond Uranus, and we call it Neptune. Nothing else of comparable size has subsequently been seen in our solar system.

With scientific knowledge and technology progressing in the middle of the nineteenth century, new objects were glimpsed between Mars and Jupiter. As more and more were seen over the years, what we now know as the main asteroid belt was gradually recognized. Terminology changed too. One of the great strengths of science is that it advances, and sometimes we have to modify our vocabulary to reflect the improved, refined view of the universe.

By the time Pluto was sighted in 1930, Ceres had long been known as a “minor planet” and an “asteroid.” For a while thereafter, Pluto enjoyed planetary status similar to what Ceres had had. In fact, in 1940, scientists named two more additions to the periodic table of the elements neptunium and plutonium. While the histories are not identical, there is a certain parallel, with more and more objects in Pluto’s part of the solar system later being found. Terminology changed again: Pluto was subsumed into the new category of “dwarf planets” defined by the IAU in 2006. Ceres was the first body to be discovered that met the criteria established by the IAU, and Pluto was the second. (Spacecraft are now on their way to both dwarf planets: Dawn to orbit Ceres 214 years after its discovery and the wonderful New Horizons mission to fly past Pluto 85 years after it was found.)

We discussed this new nomenclature in some detail shortly after it was adopted. We understand that the designation then, as now, is controversial among some scientists and the public, and there are strong emotions on this topic. We will not delve into it here (nor in the blog comments below), preferring instead to focus on the extraordinary successes of science, the great power of the scientific method and the thrill of bold adventures far from home. The Dawn team remains both unperturbed and confident in what to call this intriguing and alluring world: we call it “Ceres.” And our goal is to develop that faint smudge of light amidst the stars into a richly detailed portrait.

One of the advances of science was the recognition that Ceres really is entirely different from typical residents of the main asteroid belt. It is a colossus! There are millions upon millions of asteroids, and yet Ceres itself contains roughly 30 percent of the mass in that entire vast region of space. By the way, Vesta, the second most massive body there, constitutes about eight percent of the asteroid belt’s mass. It is remarkable that Dawn will single-handedly explore around 40 percent of the asteroid belt’s mass.

With an equatorial diameter of about 605 miles (975 kilometers), a value that Dawn will refine very soon, Ceres is the largest body between the sun and Pluto that a spacecraft has not yet visited. It is occasionally described as being comparable in size to Texas, which is like comparing a basketball to a flat sheet of paper. Ceres has a surface area 38 percent of that of the continental United States, or more than four times the area of Texas. (Nevertheless, until Dawn shows evidence to the contrary, we will assume Texas has more rodeos.) It is nearly a third of the area of Europe and larger than the combined lands of France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Such a large place offers the promise of tremendous diversity and many marvelous and exciting sights to behold. Earth is about to be introduced to a fascinating new world.

How did Ceres come to be? And why is that being phrased as a question instead of a more declarative introduction to the history and nature of this dwarf planet? For that matter, why is this paragraph composed exclusively of questions? At least this sentence isn’t a question, right? OK, really, shouldn’t we stay more on topic?

At the dawn of the solar system almost 4.6 billion years ago, the young sun was surrounded by a swirling cloud of dust and gas. Sometimes some particles would happen to hit and stick together. Then more and more and more particles would stick to them, and eventually these agglomerations would grow so large that their gravity would pull in even more material. It was through mechanisms like this that the planets formed.

But when massive Jupiter developed, its powerful gravity terminated the growth of objects nearby, leaving bits and pieces as asteroids. Ceres and Vesta, already sizable by then, might have grown to become even larger, each incorporating still more of the nearby material, had Jupiter not deprived them of such an opportunity. Not having made it to full planetary proportions, Ceres and Vesta are known as protoplanets, and studying them provides scientists with insight into the largest building blocks of planets and into worlds that are intriguing in their own rights.

Ceres apparently formed far enough from the sun under conditions cool enough for it to hang on to water molecules. Indeed, scientists have good reason to believe that water (mostly in the form of ice) may make up an astonishing 30 percent of its mass. Ceres may contain more water than Mars or any other body in the inner solar system except Earth. (Comets, of course, have high proportions of water too, but they are so minuscule compared to this behemoth that each one harbors a quite negligible amount of water when measured against Ceres’ huge inventory.)

Although some of the moons of the outer planets also are ice and rock, and they display very interesting characteristics to the impressive and capable spacecraft that have flown past (in some cases repeatedly, as the craft orbited the host planet), no probe has had the capability to linger in orbit around any of them. Dawn’s in-depth exploration of Ceres will yield more detailed and complete views than we have obtained of any icy moon.

Radioactive elements incorporated into Ceres when it was forming would supply it with some heat, and its great bulk would provide thermal insulation, so it would take a very long time for the heat to escape into space. The sun, faraway though it is, adds still more heat. As a result, there may be some water warm enough to be liquid. (The concentration of any chemical impurities in the water that affect its freezing point, as salt does, may make an important difference in how much is liquid.) This distant, alien world may have lakes or even oceans of liquid water deep underground. What a fantastic possibility!

There will be no liquid on the frigid surface. Even ice on the surface, exposed to the cold vacuum of space, would sublimate before long. But ice could be just beneath the surface, perhaps well less than a yard (a meter) deep.

Ceres then may have a thin, dusty crust over a mantle rich in ice that might be more than 60 miles (100 kilometers) thick. Its warmer core is likely composed mostly of rock.

As heat dissipated from Ceres’ interior over the eons, it may have undergone convection, with the warmer material rising and cooler material sinking very slowly. This is reminiscent of what occurs in pot of heated water and in Earth’s interior. Even if it did occur at some time in Ceres’ history, it probably is not happening any longer, as too much heat would have been lost by now, so there would not be enough left to power the upward movement of warm material. But the convective process might have written its signature in structures or minerals left behind when ice sublimated after being pushed to the surface. Dawn’s photos of geological features and measurements of the composition may provide a window to forces in the interior of the protoplanet sometime in its past.

Even if convection is no longer occurring, Ceres is not entirely static. We have very tantalizing information from a marvelously productive far-infrared space telescope named for the only known astronomer who found a planet before Piazzi made his discovery. The Herschel Space Observatory recently detected a tiny amount of water vapor emanating from the distant dwarf planet. Scientists do not know how the water vapor makes it into space. It might be from ice sublimating (possibly following a powerful impact that exposed subsurface ice) or perhaps from geysers or even erupting cryovolcanoes (“cold volcanoes”) powered by heat that Ceres has retained since its formation. In any case, Herschel saw water, albeit in very, very small quantity.

It is not certain whether water vapor is there all the time. It is unknown whether, for example, it depends on solar heating and hence where Ceres is in its somewhat elliptical orbit around the sun (not as circular as Earth’s orbit but more circular than Mars’), which requires 4.6 years to complete.

Even if the water vapor is present during Dawn’s 1.3-year primary mission in orbit, it would be extremely difficult to detect. Herschel made its findings when our ship was already far, far from Earth, well along its interplanetary itinerary. The probe’s sensors were designed for studying the solid surfaces of airless bodies, not an exceedingly tenuous veil of water molecules. For context, the water vapor Herschel measured is significantly less dense than Earth’s atmosphere is even far above the International Space Station, which orbits in what most people consider to be the vacuum of space. Dawn will not need windshield wipers! Nevertheless, as we saw in February, the Dawn team, ever creative and dedicated to squeezing as much out of the mission as possible, investigated techniques this year that might be effective in searching for an exceptionally thin vapor. They have augmented the plan with many hours of observations of the space above Ceres when the spacecraft is over the night side during its first science orbit in April and May at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). It is possible that if there is some water vapor, the instruments may pick up a faint signature in the sunlight that passes through it.

Regardless of the possibility of detecting traces of water from Ceres, Dawn will focus its measurements on the uncharted surface and the interior, as it did at Vesta. Vesta displayed landscapes battered by craters from impacts during more than 4.5 billion years in the rough and tumble asteroid belt. Ceres has spent most or all of its history also in the asteroid belt, but it is possible it will not show its age so clearly. Ice, although very hard at such low temperatures, is not as hard as rock. So it may be that the surface gradually “relaxes” after an impact, just as your skin restores its shape after pressure has been removed. Craters older than a few tens of millions of years may have slowly disappeared. (That may sound old, but it is a small fraction of Ceres’ lifetime.) Near the poles, where it is colder so ice is harder, the scars of impact craters may be preserved for longer.

Ceres has more than water-ice and rock. It probably contains organic materials, some produced by chemical processes with the minerals already there and some delivered by asteroids that fell to its surface. This is noteworthy, because water and organic chemicals are ingredients for life. The combination of Ceres’ internal heat and the weak but persistent heating from the sun provides energy, which also is essential for life. Even if the possibility of life itself there is extremely remote (and it is beyond Dawn’s capability to detect), the conditions for “prebiotic” chemistry would be tremendously interesting. That is why, as we explained in August, we want to protect the special environment on the ground from contamination by the terrestrial chemicals in our orbiting spacecraft.

While there is more known about Ceres, there is much, much more that is unknown. Dawn seeks to discover many of the secrets of this unfamiliar, fascinating member of the solar system family. One of the measures of its success would be if, upon answering many of our questions about Ceres, we are left with even more questions. Now on the threshold of an old world which will be new to us, we do not have long to wait for the great rewards of new knowledge, new insight, new thrills and new mysteries to solve.

Dawn is 382,000 miles (614,000 kilometers) from Ceres, or 1.6 times the average distance between Earth and the moon. It is also 3.77 AU (351 million miles, or 564 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,500 times as far as the moon and 3.84 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and three minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
8:00 a.m. PST December 29, 2014

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Illustration showing a comparison of Dawn's trajectories

Dear Unidawntified Flying Objects,

Flying silently and smoothly through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn emits a blue-green beam of high velocity xenon ions. On the opposite side of the sun from Earth, firing its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system, the distant adventurer is continuing to make good progress on its long trek from the giant protoplanet Vesta to dwarf planet Ceres.

This month, let’s look ahead to some upcoming activities. You can use the sun in December to locate Dawn in the sky, but before we describe that, let’s see how Dawn is looking ahead to Ceres, with plans to take pictures on the night of Dec. 1.

The robotic explorer’s sensors are complex devices that perform many sensitive measurements. To ensure they yield the best possible scientific data, their health must be carefully monitored and maintained, and they must be accurately calibrated. The sophisticated instruments are activated and tested occasionally, and all remain in excellent condition. One final calibration of the science camera is needed before arrival at Ceres. To accomplish it, the camera needs to take pictures of a target that appears just a few pixels across. The endless sky that surrounds our interplanetary traveler is full of stars, but those beautiful pinpoints of light, while easily detectable, are too small for this specialized measurement. But there is an object that just happens to be the right size. On Dec. 1, Ceres will be about nine pixels in diameter, nearly perfect for this calibration.

The images will provide data on very subtle optical properties of the camera that scientists will use when they analyze and interpret the details of some of the pictures returned from orbit. At 740,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers), Dawn’s distance to Ceres will be about three times the separation between Earth and the moon. Its camera, designed for mapping Vesta and Ceres from orbit, will not reveal anything new. It will, however, reveal something cool! The pictures will be the first extended view for the first probe to reach the first dwarf planet discovered. They will show the largest body between the sun and Pluto that has not yet been visited by a spacecraft, Dawn’s destination since it climbed out of Vesta’s gravitational grip more than two years ago.

This will not be the first time Dawn has spotted Ceres. In a different calibration of the camera more than four years ago, the explorer descried its faint destination, far away in both time and space. Back then, still a year before arriving at Vesta, Dawn was more than 1,300 times farther from Ceres than it will be for this new calibration. The giant of the main asteroid belt was an indistinct dot in the vast cosmic landscape.

Image of Ceres

Dawn’s first photo of Ceres, taken on July 20, 2010. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MPS/DLR/IDA

Now Ceres is the brightest object in Dawn’s sky save the distant sun. When it snaps the photos, Ceres will be as bright as Venus sometimes appears from Earth (what astronomers would call visual magnitude -3.6).

First image of Vesta

Dawn’s first extended picture of Ceres will be only slightly larger than this image of Vesta taken on May 3, 2011, at the beginning of the Vesta approach phase. The inset shows the pixelated Vesta, extracted from the main picture in which the overexposed Vesta can be seen against the background of stars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

To conserve hydrazine, a precious resource following the loss of two reaction wheels, Dawn will thrust with its ion propulsion system when it performs this calibration, which requires long exposures. In addition to moving the spacecraft along in its trajectory, the ion engine stabilizes the ship, enabling it to point steadily in the zero-gravity of spaceflight. (Dawn’s predecessor, Deep Space 1, used the same trick of ion thrusting in order to be as stable as possible for its initial photos of comet Borrelly.)

As Dawn closes in on its quarry, Ceres will grow brighter and larger. Last month we summarized the plan for photographing Ceres during the first part of the approach phase, yielding views in January comparable to the best we currently have (from Hubble Space Telescope) and in February significantly better. The principal purpose of the pictures is to help navigators steer the ship into this uncharted, final port following a long voyage on the interplanetary seas. The camera serves as the helmsman’s eyes. Ceres has been observed with telescopes from (or near) Earth for more than two centuries, but it has appeared as little more than a faint, fuzzy blob farther away than the sun. But not for much longer!

The only spaceship ever built to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, Dawn’s advanced ion propulsion system enables its ambitious mission. Providing the merest whisper of thrust, the ion engine allows Dawn to maneuver in ways entirely different from conventional spacecraft. In January, we presented in detail Dawn’s unique way of slipping into orbit. In September, a burst of space radiation disrupted the thrust profile. As we saw, the flight team responded swiftly to a very complex problem, minimizing the duration of the missed thrust. One part of their contingency operations was to design a new approach trajectory, accounting for the 95 hours that Dawn coasted instead of thrust. Let’s take a look now at how the resulting trajectory differs from what we discussed at the beginning of this year.

In the original approach, Dawn would follow a simple spiral around Ceres, approaching from the general direction of the sun, looping over the south pole, going beyond to the night side, and coming back above the north pole before easing into the targeted orbit, known by the stirring name RC3, at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). Like a pilot landing a plane, flying this route required lining up on a particular course and speed well in advance. The ion thrusting this year had been setting Dawn up to get on that approach spiral early next year.

The change in its flight profile following the September encounter with a rogue cosmic ray meant the spiral path would be markedly different and would require significantly longer to complete. While the flight team certainly is patient -- after all, Earth’s robotic ambassador won’t reach Ceres until 213 years after its discovery and more than seven years after launch -- the brilliantly creative navigators devised an entirely new approach trajectory that would be shorter. Demonstrating the extraordinary flexibility of ion propulsion, the spacecraft now will take a completely different path but will wind up in exactly the same orbit.

The spacecraft will allow itself to be captured by Ceres on March 6, only about half a day later than the trajectory it was pursuing before the hiatus in thrust, but the geometry both before and after will be quite different. Instead of flying south of Ceres, Dawn is now targeted to trail a little behind it, letting the dwarf planet lead as they both orbit the sun, and then the spacecraft will begin to gently curve around it. (You can see this in the figure below.) Dawn will come to 24,000 miles (38,000 kilometers) and then will slowly arc away. But thanks to the remarkable design of the thrust profile, the ion engine and the gravitational pull from the behemoth of rock and ice will work together. At a distance of 41,000 miles (61,000 kilometers), Ceres will reach out and tenderly take hold of its new consort, and they will be together evermore. Dawn will be in orbit, and Ceres will forever be accompanied by this former resident of Earth.


In this view, looking down on the north pole of Ceres, the sun is off the figure to the left and Ceres' counterclockwise orbital motion around the sun takes it from the bottom of the figure to the top. Dawn flies in from the left, traveling behind Ceres, and then is captured on the way to the apex of its orbit. The white circles are at one-day intervals, illustrating how Dawn slows down gradually at first. (When the circles are closer together, Dawn is moving more slowly.) After capture, both Ceres' gravity and the ion thrust slow it even more before the craft accelerates to the end of the approach phase. (You can think of this perspective as being from above. Then the next figure shows the view from the side, which here would mean looking toward the action from a location off the bottom of the graphic.) Image credit: NASA/JPL

If the spacecraft stopped thrusting just when Ceres captured it, it would continue looping around the massive body in a high, elliptical orbit, but its mission is to scrutinize the mysterious world. Our goal is not to be in just any arbitrary orbit but rather in the particular orbits that have been chosen to provide the best scientific return for the probe’s camera and other sensors. So it won’t stop but instead will continue maneuvering to RC3.

Ever graceful, Dawn will gently thrust to counter its orbital momentum, keeping it from swinging up to the highest altitude it would otherwise attain. On March 18, nearly two weeks after it is captured by Ceres’ gravity, Dawn will arc to the crest of its orbit. Like a ball thrown high that slows to a momentary stop before falling back, Dawn’s orbital ascent will end at an altitude of 47,000 miles (75,000 kilometers), and Ceres’ relentless pull (aided by the constant, gentle thrust) will win out. As it begins descending toward its gravitational master, it will continue working with Ceres. Rather than resist the fall, the spacecraft will thrust to accelerate itself, quickening the trip down to RC3.

There is more to the specification of the orbit than the altitude. One of the other attributes is the orientation of the orbit in space. (Imagine an orbit as a ring around Ceres, but that ring can be tipped and tilted in many ways.) To provide a view of the entire surface as Ceres rotates underneath it, Dawn needs to be in a polar orbit, flying over the north pole as it travels from the nightside to the dayside, moving south as it passes over the equator, sailing back to the unilluminated side when it reaches the south pole, and then heading north above terrain in the dark of night. To accomplish the earlier part of its new approach trajectory, however, Dawn will stay over lower latitudes, very high above the mysterious surface but not far from the equator. Therefore, as it races toward RC3, it will orient its ion engine not only to shorten the time to reach that orbital altitude but also to tip the plane of its orbit so that it encircles the poles (and tilts the plane to be at a particular orientation relative to the sun). Then, finally, as it gets closer still, it will turn to use that famously efficient glowing beam of xenon ions against Ceres’ gravity, acting as a brake rather than an accelerator. By April 23, this first act of a beautiful new celestial ballet will conclude. Dawn will be in the originally intended orbit around Ceres, ready for its next act: the intensive observations of RC3 we described in February.

Comparison of Trajectories

North is at the top of this figure and the sun is far to the left. Ceres orbital motion around the sun carries it straight into the figure. The original approach took Dawn over Ceres' south pole as it spiraled directly into RC3. On the new approach, it looks here as if it flies in over the north pole, but that is because of the flat depiction. As the previous figure shows, the approach takes Dawn well behind Ceres in their progression around the sun. The upper part of the green trajectory is not in the same plane as the original approach and RC3; rather, it is in the foreground, "in front of" the graphic. As Dawn flies to the right side of the diagram, it also moves back into the plane of the figure to align with the targeted RC3. As before, the circles, spaced at intervals of one day, indicate the spacecraft's speed; where they are closer together, the ship travels more slowly. (You can think of this perspective as being from the side and the previous figure as showing the view from above, off the top of this graphic.) Image credit: NASA/JPL

Dawn’s route to orbit is no more complex and elegant than what any crackerjack spaceship pilot would execute. However, one of the key differences between what our ace will perform and what often happens in science fiction movies is that Dawn’s maneuvers will comply with the laws of physics. And if that’s not gratifying enough, perhaps the fact that it’s real makes it even more impressive. A spaceship sent from Earth more than seven years ago, propelled by electrically accelerated ions, having already maneuvered extensively in orbit around the giant protoplanet Vesta to reveal its myriad secrets, soon will bank and roll, arc and turn, ascend and descend, and swoop into its planned orbit.

Illustration of the relative locations (but not sizes) of Earth, the sun, and Dawn in early December 2014

Illustration of the relative locations (but not sizes) of Earth, the sun, and Dawn in early December 2014. (Earth and the sun are at that location every December.) The images are superimposed on the trajectory for the entire mission, showing the positions of Earth, Mars, Vesta, and Ceres at milestones during Dawn’s voyage. Image credit: NASA/JPL

As Earth, the sun, and the spacecraft come closer into alignment, radio signals that go back and forth must pass near the sun. The solar environment is fierce indeed, and it will interfere with those radio waves. While some signals will get through, communication will not be reliable. Therefore, controllers plan to send no messages to the spacecraft from Dec. 4 through Dec. 15; all instructions needed during that time will be stored onboard beforehand. Occasionally Deep Space Network antennas, pointing near the sun, will listen through the roaring noise for the faint whisper of the spacecraft, but the team will consider any communication to be a bonus.

Dawn is big for an interplanetary spacecraft (or for an otherworldly dragonfly, for that matter), with a wingspan of nearly 65 feet (19.7 meters). However, more than 3.8 times as far as the sun, 352 million miles (567 million kilometers) away, humankind lacks any technology even remotely capable of glimpsing it. But we can bring to bear something more powerful than our technology: our mind’s eye. From Dec. 8 to 11, if you block the sun’s blazing light with your thumb, you will also be covering Dawn’s location. There, in that direction, is our faraway emissary to new worlds. It has traveled three billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers) already on its extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition, and some of the most exciting miles are still ahead as it nears Ceres. You can see right where it is. It is now on the far side of the sun.

The 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 so much of the heat, light and other energy upon which the planet’s residents have been so dependent. 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 scientific studies for centuries. This is the same sun that is our signpost in the Milky Way galaxy. And humans have a spacecraft on the far side of it. We may be humbled by our own insignificance in the universe, yet we still undertake the most valiant adventures in our attempts to comprehend its majesty.

Dawn is 780,000 miles (1.3 million kilometers) from Ceres, or 3.3 times the average distance between Earth and the moon. It is also 3.77 AU (350 million miles, or 564 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,525 times as far as the moon and 3.82 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and three minutes to make the round trip.

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