Dawn is going out on a high! Or maybe a low. Rapidly nearing the end of a unique decade-long interplanetary expedition, Dawn is taking phenomenal pictures of dwarf planet Ceres as it swoops closer to the ground than ever before. While the pictures are too new for compelling scientific conclusions to be reached, a clear consensus has already emerged: Wow!!!
Every 27 hours, the bold adventurer plunges from 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) down to just 22 miles (35 kilometers) above the alien world, accelerating to 1,050 mph (1,690 kph), and then shoots back up to do it all over again. (Try that, bungee jumpers!)
When Dawn dives low, it takes spectacular pictures, and you can see some of them here and more in the image gallery. But that's not all it does. The spacecraft also collects a trove of data on the nuclear radiation emanating from Ceres (which can reveal some of the atomic elements that are present), the gravity field (which can reveal the distribution of mass underground) and the infrared and visible light (which can reveal the minerals on the ground). Dawn has made all these kinds of measurements before, not only during more than three years at Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt, but also during its 2011-2012 studies of Vesta, the second largest. But prior to this month, Dawn had never been this close and so never had such breathtaking sights and never been able to gather such high-resolution information.
We described the nature of this orbit in the three previous Dawn Journals. It is known as extended mission orbit 7 (XMO7) because Dawn's computer program for generating really cool and dramatic names was offline when it was time to come up with the name. Ever resourceful, the team activated the backup software that generates accurate but uninspiring names.
That kind of resourcefulness has served Dawn very well. Despite critical hardware failures that could have been disastrous for the mission, the flight team has accomplished success after success. The difficulty of flying so low -- only three times your altitude when you travel in a commercial jet -- and actually collecting useful data there seemed unachievable as recently as late last year. And now Dawn is doing it regularly.
Before XMO7, the spacecraft's lowest orbit around Ceres was 240 miles (385 kilometers), about the same height as the International Space Station is above Earth. Dawn spent eight months in 2015-2016 at that altitude, providing an exquisite view of the dwarf planet. It subsequently flew higher to pursue other scientific objectives.
Now Dawn is observing Ceres from as low as about 22 miles (35 kilometers). That tremendous reduction in altitude, a factor of 11, is the largest of the entire mission. At no other time at Vesta or Ceres did Dawn move in that much closer from its previous best vantage point. For those of you who enjoy the numbers, the table here has the distances for each of Dawn's observations of Ceres before the comprehensive mapping began, and this table shows the altitudes of the four mapping orbits of the prime mission, the last being the lowest. In those tables, we compared Dawn's view of Ceres to a view of a soccer ball. The low point of XMO7 would be like looking at a soccer ball from only one-third of an inch (eight millimeters) away. This is truly in-your-face exploration.
And the jump in resolution is amazing. With the fantastic new details, it seems we are seeing a whole new Ceres. A picture is worth a thousand words, but these pictures also merit a few exclamation points!!!
Dawn completed ion thrusting to XMO7 on June 6 and began its new observations of Ceres on schedule on June 9. Everywhere the spacecraft looked, it had fascinating new views. But the team had one special site in mind, and you might too. (Maybe it's even the same site.)
One of the bonus objectives was to try to get photos of Cerealia Facula, the mesmerizingly bright center of Occator Crater. We have explained why targeting a specific location is so hard. One of the attractive features of XMO7 was that it allowed two specially targeted attempts, thus increasing the chances that at least one would work. The team worked very hard to devise methods to take full advantage of that, while always quite well aware that it might not work.
Before we proceed, let's recall some terminology and introduce a new term. The high point in Dawn's orbit, 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers), is known as apodemeter, analogous to the more common term apogee, which applies for orbits around Earth. (Demeter is the Greek counterpart of the Roman goddess Ceres.) The low point, 22 miles (35 kilometers), is peridemeter. Each 27.2-hour orbital revolution has one apodemeter and one peridemeter.
In April we discussed that Dawn travels much faster near peridemeter than near apodemeter, just as a swing moves faster at its low point than at its high point. As a fun fact, which does not bear on any of the following discussion, Dawn spends less than two hours over the dayside of Ceres (including peridemeter) and more than 25 hours over the nightside (including apodemeter). That may be surprising, but if you contemplate the illustrations of the elliptical XMO7 below and in March and think about the constantly changing velocity, it may make sense. (Or you may decide that it doesn't matter, accept it and move on.)
Mission planners had windows in the schedule for using the ion propulsion system to adjust the orbit. They instructed Dawn to fire its ion engine for 2 hours and 7 minutes on June 20 as the ship sailed upward. Fifteen hours later, on June 21, after it had crested in its orbit and was descending, it performed a second burn for 1 hour and 11 minutes.
The purpose of this pair of maneuvers was to bring Dawn's flight path at peridemeter right over Cerealia Facula. But the experienced explorers in mission control recognized that even with all their careful planning and Dawn's faithful execution of its assignments, there was a good chance the probe would not fly directly above that unique site as it sped northward. Therefore, they had also worked out plans to quickly determine how far east or west it would be at peridemeter and radio a (nearly) last minute adjustment in the angle it would point its sensors.
After the second segment of ion maneuvering, Dawn's orbit took it down to peridemeter again on June 21 for another intensive period of close-up observations. Even before it had time to finish radioing those findings to Earth the next day, the team began preparing for the next dive down. On June 22, they made their final calculations of the orbital path and predicted that Dawn would fly a little west of Cerealia Facula that night and a little east of it the next time around. That afternoon, they transmitted instructions to Dawn to aim its camera and spectrometers just a little to the right the first time and just a little to the left the second time. (Sophisticated and capable though Dawn is, the instructions controllers sent were a little more specific and quantitative than the descriptions here.)
The team would have considered their extensive efforts successful if the spacecraft had photographed part of Cerealia Facula once. (Dawn flies so close to the ground that it would be impossible to photograph all of Cerealia Facula on any one orbit; its camera's view is simply not wide enough.) As it turned out, Dawn managed to get pictures of Cerealia Facula on three consecutive orbits, each time seeing different parts, yielding far better coverage of this exotic landscape than we had even hoped for.
Flying to this incredibly low orbit, getting such a wealth of data and even managing to photograph a good portion of Cerealia Facula truly tested the very limits of the mission's capabilities. Dawn has surpassed all expectations, accomplishing feats not even considered when it was designed.
In order to prepare for the long shot of attempting to capture Cerealia Facula, Dawn rotated to point its main antenna to Earth relatively often, sometimes after each peridemeter or after two or three. That allowed the flight team to work more closely with the spacecraft. Then it would turn again to bring its sensors to bear on Ceres shortly before soaring through the next peridemeter. But all that turning costs Dawn hydrazine, the resource that limits its operational life to only another few months. (We outlined this situation last month and will delve into it more fully next month.) Now Dawn will observe Ceres on five consecutive orbits, filling its memory with data, and then spend almost two full days, including one peridemeter, transmitting that valuable information back to Earth. While its antenna is trained on Earth, the spacecraft cannot simultaneously direct its sensors at Ceres. That actually yields especially good gravity measurements, which use the Doppler shift of the radio signal, because the signal is much stronger with the main antenna than with one of the auxiliary antennas. Pictures and spectra, however, cannot be acquired on that one peridemeter in every six during which Dawn sends its results to Earth. The flight team determined that the benefit of turning less often and thus reducing hydrazine consumption yields the best scientific return. (This savings was already accounted for when we described the end of the mission as likely being between August and October.)
We saw in March that the latitude at which Dawn reaches peridemeter shifts south with every revolution. That is, the low point of each orbit is about 2° south of the one before. As a result, each time the spacecraft flies over Occator Crater now, it is higher than the previous time. Occator is at 20°N. Now the peridemeter is close to the equator, and soon Dawn's best views of Ceres will be in the region of Urvara Crater.
Firing ion engine #2 on June 21 accomplished more than the orbital adjustment that allowed the ship to spot Cerealia Facula at three consecutive peridemeters. It also completed the planned use of the ion propulsion system for the entire mission.
Dawn's ion engines have enabled this interplanetary spaceship to accomplish a journey unique in humankind's exploration of the solar system. After departing Earth with the help of a conventional rocket, Dawn used those engines to fly past Mars in 2009, to travel to Vesta and enter orbit in 2011, to maneuver extensively in orbit to optimize its observations there, to break out of orbit in 2012, to travel to Ceres and slip into orbit in 2015, and to perform even more maneuvering there than at Vesta. No other spacecraft has ever orbited two extraterrestrial destinations, and Dawn's mission to do so would have been impossible without ion propulsion.
We summarize the mission's ion thrusting on every Dawnniversary of launch, but since no further use is planned, we can give some final numbers here. Dawn thrust for a total of 2,141 days (5.9 years), or 55 percent of the time it has been in space (and 0.000000042 percent of the time since the Big Bang). The thrusting has achieved the equivalent of accelerating the probe by 25,700 mph (41,400 kilometers per hour). As we have often explained (see here for one of the more extensive discussions), because of the principles of motion for orbital flight, whether around the Sun or any other gravitating body, Dawn is not actually traveling this much faster than when it launched. But the effective change in speed remains a useful measure of the effect of any spacecraft's propulsive work. Dawn has far exceeded the velocity change achieved by any other spacecraft under its own power. (For a comparison with probes that enter orbit around Mars, refer to this earlier Dawn Journal.)
The engines have done their job admirably, and now we have no further use for them. As a reminder, they are not needed for Dawn to stay in orbit around Ceres, just as the Moon doesn't need propulsion to stay in orbit around Earth and Earth doesn't need propulsion to say in orbit around the Sun. Next month we will discuss what will happen to Dawn's orbit after the mission ends.
When the ion engine was programmed to stop thrusting on June 21, some Dawn team members gathered in mission control to mark the occasion. Dawn was busy and was not communicating with Earth at the time. Even if it had been, a radio signal confirming the end of thrust would have taken almost 25 minutes to reach our planet. But the team decided to neglect the limitation of the speed of light and mark the moment (1:15:03 pm PDT) that the blue glow on the distant ship's engine would extinguish for the last time. And at that same moment, the blue lights in mission control were turned off for the last time as well.
It's natural to feel some sadness or loss now that the engines will not fire again. After all, ion propulsion is cool, especially for those of us who first heard of it in science fiction. It is even cooler for those who appreciate its tremendous capability and how valuable that is for deep-space missions. We can feel wistful, of course, but the last use of the ion engines was a direct result of their great success. After a truly stupendous interplanetary mission, we have Dawn right where we want it: in an orbit optimized for getting the last, best data at the endlessly fascinating dwarf planet it has unveiled. We can be grateful the ion engines allowed Dawn to explore two of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system and that they captivated our imagination as the distant spacecraft traveled through the solar system on a blue-green beam of xenon ions. Not too long ago, ion propulsion was mostly in the domain of science fiction. NASA's Deep Space 1 put it firmly into the realm of science fact. Building on DS1, Dawn has rocketed far beyond, accomplishing a space trek that would have been impossible without ion propulsion. Its mission was to boldly go where -- well, you know. And it has! Dawn's engines will never emit their cool blue glow again, but their legacy will not fade.
Dawn is 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Ceres (and headed for peridemeter). It is also 3.06 AU (284 million miles, or 457 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,125 times as far as the Moon and 3.01 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 Rayman
7:00 pm PDT June 30, 2018
A deep-space robotic emissary from Earth is continuing to carry out its extraordinary mission at a distant dwarf planet.
Orbiting high above Ceres, the sophisticated Dawn spacecraft is hard at work unveiling the secrets of the exotic alien world that has been its home for almost two years.
Dawn’s primary objective in this sixth orbital phase at Ceres (known as extended mission orbit 3, XMO3 or "this sixth orbital phase at Ceres") is to record cosmic rays. Doing so will allow scientists to remove that "noise" from the nuclear radiation measurements performed during the eight months Dawn operated in a low, tight orbit around Ceres. The result will be a cleaner signal, revealing even more about the atomic constituents down to about a yard (meter) underground. As we will see below, in addition to this ongoing investigation, soon the adventurer will begin pursuing a new objective in its exploration of Ceres.
With its uniquely capable ion propulsion system, Dawn has flown to orbits with widely varying characteristics. In contrast to the previous five observation orbits (and all the observation orbits at Vesta), XMO3 is elliptical. Over the course of almost eight days, the spacecraft sails from a height of about 4,670 miles (7,520 kilometers) up to almost 5,810 miles (9,350 kilometers) and back down. Dutifully following principles discovered by Johannes Kepler at the beginning of the 17th century and explained by Isaac Newton at the end of that century, Dawn’s speed over this range of altitudes varies from 210 mph (330 kilometers per hour) when it is closest to Ceres to 170 mph (270 kilometers per hour) when it is farthest. Yesterday afternoon, the craft was at its highest for the current orbit. During the day today, the ship will descend from 5,790 miles (9,310 kilometers) to 5,550 miles (8,930 kilometers). As it does so, Ceres’ gravity will gradually accelerate it from 170 mph (273 kilometers per hour) to 177 mph (285 kilometers per hour). (Usually we round the orbital velocity to the nearest multiple of 10. In this case, however, to show the change during one day, the values presented are more precise.)
As we saw last month, the angle of XMO3 to the sun presents an opportunity to gain a new perspective on Ceres, with sunlight coming from a different angle. (We include the same figure here, because we will refer to it more below.) Last week, Dawn took advantage of that opportunity, seeing the alien landscapes in a new light as it took pictures for the first time since October.
Dawn takes more than a week to revolve around Ceres, but Ceres turns on its axis in just nine hours. Because Dawn moves through only a small segment of its orbit in one Cerean day, it is almost as if the spacecraft hovers in place as the dwarf planet pirouettes beneath it. During one such period on Jan. 27, Dawn’s high perch moved only from 11°N to 12°S latitude as Ceres presented her full range of longitudes to the explorer’s watchful eye. This made it very convenient to take pictures and visible spectra as the scenery helpfully paraded by. (The spacecraft was high enough to see much farther north and south than the latitudes immediately beneath it.) Dawn will make similar observations again twice in February.
As Dawn was expertly executing the elegant, complex spiral ascent from XMO2 to XMO3 in November, the flight team considered it to be the final choreography in the venerable probe’s multi-act grand interplanetary performance. By then, Dawn had already far exceeded all of its original objectives at Vesta and Ceres, and the last of the new scientific goals could be met in XMO3, the end of the encore. The primary consideration was to keep Dawn high enough to measure cosmic rays, meaning it needed to stay above about 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers). There was no justification or motivation to go anywhere else. Well, that’s the way it was in November anyway. This is January. And now it’s (almost) time for a previously unanticipated new act, XMO4.
Always looking for ways to squeeze as much out of the mission as possible, the team has now devised a new and challenging investigation. It will consume the next five months (and much of the next five Dawn Journals). We begin this month with an overview, but follow along each month as we present the full story, including a detailed explanation of the underlying science, the observations themselves and the remarkable orbital maneuvering entirely unlike anything Dawn has done before. (You can also follow along with your correspondent’s uncharacteristically brief and more frequent mission status updates.)
From the XMO3 vantage point, with sunlight coming from the side, Ceres is gibbous and looks closer to a half moon than full. The new objective is to peer at Ceres when the sun is directly behind Dawn. This would be the same as looking at a full moon. (In the figure above, it would be like photographing Ceres from somewhere on the dashed line that points to the distant sun.)
While Dawn obtained pictures from near the line to the sun in its first Ceres orbit, there is a special importance to being even closer to that line. Let’s see why that alignment is valuable.
Most materials reflect light differently at different angles. You can investigate this yourself (and it’s probably easier to do at home than it is in orbit around a remote dwarf planet). To make it simpler, take some object that is relatively uniform (but with a matte finish, not a mirror-like finish) and vary the angles at which light hits it and from which you look at it. You may see that it appears dimmer or brighter as the angles change. It turns out that this effect may be used to help infer the nature of the reflecting material. (For the purposes of this exercise, if you can hold the angle of the object relative to your gaze fixed, and vary only the angle of the illumination, that’s best. But don’t worry about the details. Conducting this experiment represents only a small part of your final grade.)
Now when scientists carefully measure the reflected light under controlled conditions, they find that the intensity changes quite gradually over a wide range of angles. In other words, the apparent brightness of an object does not vary dramatically as the geometry changes. However, when the source of the illumination gets very close to being directly behind the observer, the reflection may become quite a bit stronger. (If you test this, of course, you have to ensure your shadow doesn’t interfere with the observation. Vampires don’t worry about this, and we’ll explain below why Dawn needn’t either.)
If you (or a helpful scientist friend of yours) measure how bright a partial moon is and then use that information to calculate how bright the full moon will be, you will wind up with an answer that’s too small. The full moon is significantly brighter than would be expected based on how lunar soil reflects light at other angles. (Of course, you will have to account for the fact that there is more illuminated area on a full moon, but this curious optical behavior is different. Here we are describing how the brightness of any given patch of ground changes.)
A full moon occurs when the moon and sun are in opposite directions from Earth’s perspective. That alignment is known as opposition. That is, an astronomical body (like the moon or a planet) is in opposition when the observer (you) is right in between it and the source of illumination (the sun), so all three are on a straight line. And because the brightness takes such a steep and unexpected jump there, this phenomenon is known as the opposition surge.
The observed magnitude of the opposition surge can reveal some of the nature of the illuminated object on much, much finer scales than are visible in photos. Knowing the degree to which the reflection strengthens at very small angles allows scientists to ascertain (or, at least, constrain) the texture of materials on planetary surfaces even at the microscopic level. If they are fortunate enough to have measurements of the reflectivity at different angles for a region on an airless solar system body (atmospheres complicate it too much), they compare them with laboratory measurements on candidate materials to determine which ones give the best match for the properties.
Dawn has already measured the light reflected over a wide range of angles, as is clear from the figure above showing the orbits. But the strongest discrimination among different textures relies on measuring the opposition surge. That is Dawn’s next objective, a bonus in the bonus extended mission.
You can see from the diagram that measuring the opposition surge will require a very large change in the plane of Dawn’s orbit. Shifting the plane of a spacecraft’s orbit can be energetically very, very expensive. (We will discuss this more next month.) Fortunately, the combination of the unique capabilities provided by the ion propulsion system and the ever-creative team makes it affordable.
Powered by an insatiable appetite for new knowledge, Dawn will begin ion thrusting on Feb. 23. After very complex maneuvers, it will be rewarded at the end of April with a view of a full Ceres from an altitude of around 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers), about the height of GPS satellites above Earth. (That will be about 50 percent higher than the first science orbit, which is labeled as line 1 in the figure.) There are many daunting challenges in reaching XMO4 and measuring the opposition surge. Even though it is a recently added bonus, and the success of the extended mission does not depend on it, mission planners have already designed a backup opportunity in case the first attempt does not yield the desired data. The second window is late in June, allowing the spacecraft time to transmit its findings to Earth before the extended mission concludes at the end of that month.
For technical reasons, the measurements need to be made from a high altitude, and throughout the complex maneuvering to get there, Dawn will remain high enough to monitor cosmic rays. Ceres will appear to be around five times the width of the full moon we see from Earth. It will be about 500 pixels in diameter in Dawn’s camera, and more than 180,000 pixels will show light reflected from the ground. Of greatest scientific interest in the photographs will be just a handful of pixels that show the famous bright material in Occator Crater, known as Cerealia Facula and clearly visible in the picture above. Scientists will observe how those pixels surge in brightness over a narrow range of angles as Dawn’s XMO4 orbital motion takes it into opposition, exactly between Occator and the sun. Of course, the pictures also will provide information on how the widespread dark material covering most of the ground everywhere else on Ceres changes in brightness (or, if you prefer, in dimness). But the big reward here would be insight into the details of Cerealia Facula. Comparing the opposition surges with laboratory measurements may reveal characteristics that cannot be discerned any other way save direct sampling, which is far beyond Dawn’s capability (and authority). For example, scientists may be able to estimate the size of the salt crystals that make up the bright material, and that would help establish their geological history, including whether they formed underground or on the surface. We will discuss this more in March.
Most of the data on opposition surges on solar system objects use terrestrial observations, with astronomers waiting until Earth and the target happen to move into the necessary alignment with the sun. In those cases, the surge is averaged over the entire body, because the target is usually too far away to discern any details. Therefore, it is very difficult to learn about specific features when observing from near Earth. Few spacecraft have actively maneuvered to acquire such data because, as we alluded to above and will see next month, it is too difficult, especially at a massive body like Ceres. The recognition that Dawn might be able to complete this challenging measurement for a region of particular interest represents an important possibility for the mission to discover more about this intriguing dwarf planet’s geology.
Meeting the scientific goal will require a careful and quantitative analysis of the pixels, but the images of a fully illuminated Ceres will be visually appealing as well. Nevertheless, you are cautioned to avoid developing a mistaken notion about the view. (For that matter, you are cautioned to avoid developing mistaken notions about anything.) You might think (and some readers wondered about this in a different phase of the mission) that with Dawn being between the sun and Ceres (and not being a vampire), the spacecraft’s shadow might be visible in the pictures. It would look really cool if it were (although it also would interfere with the measurement of the opposition surge by introducing another factor into how the brightness changes). There will be no shadow. The spacecraft will simply be too high. Imagine you’re standing in Occator Crater, either wearing your spacesuit while engaged in a thrilling exploration of a mysterious and captivating extraterrestrial site or perhaps instead while you’re indoors enjoying some of the colony’s specially salted Cerean savory snacks, famous throughout the solar system. In any case, the distant sun you see would be a little more than one-third the size that it looks from Earth, comparable to a soccer ball at 213 feet (65 meters). Dawn would be 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers) overhead. Although it’s one of the largest interplanetary spacecraft ever to take flight, with a wingspan of 65 feet (20 meters), it would be much too small for you to see at all without a telescope and would block an undetectably small amount of sunlight. It would appear smaller than a soccer ball seen from 135 miles (220 kilometers). Therefore, no shadow will be cast, the measurement will not be compromised by the spacecraft blocking some of the light reaching the ground and the pictures will not display any evidence of the photographer.
Even as the team was formulating plans for this ambitious new campaign, they successfully dealt with a glitch on the spacecraft this month. When a routine communications session with the Deep Space Network began on Jan. 17, controllers discovered that Dawn had previously entered its safe mode, a standard response the craft uses when it encounters conditions its programming and logic cannot accommodate. The main computer issues instructions to reconfigure systems, broadcasts a special radio signal through one of the antennas and then patiently awaits help from humans on a faraway planet (or anyone else who happens to lend assistance). The team soon determined what had occurred. Since it left Earth, Dawn has performed calculations five times per second about its location and speed in the solar system, whether in orbit around the sun, Vesta or Ceres. (Perhaps you do the same on your deep-space voyages.) However, it ran into difficulty in those calculations on Jan. 14 for the first time in more than nine years of interplanetary travel. To ensure the problematic calculations did not cause the ship to take any unsafe actions, it put itself into safe mode. Engineers have confirmed that the problem was in software, not hardware and not even a cosmic ray strike, which has occasionally triggered safe mode, most recently in September 2014.
Mission controllers guided the spacecraft out of safe mode within two days and finished returning all systems to their standard configurations shortly thereafter. Dawn was shipshape the subsequent week and resumed its scientific duties. When it activated safe mode, the computer correctly powered off the gamma ray and neutron detector, which had been measuring the cosmic rays, as we described above. The time that the instrument was off will be inconsequential, however, because there is more than enough time in the extended mission to acquire all the desired measurements.
The extended mission has already proven to be extremely productive, yielding a great deal of new data on this ancient world. But there is still more to look forward to as the veteran explorer prepares for a new and adventurous phase of its extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition.
Dawn is 5,650 miles (9,100 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.87 AU (266 million miles, or 429 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,135 times as far as the moon and 2.91 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 48 minutes to make the round trip.
Blue rope lights adorn Dawn mission control at JPL, but not because the flight team is in the holiday spirit (although they are in the holiday spirit).
The felicitous display is more than decorative. The illumination indicates that the interplanetary spacecraft is thrusting with one of its ion engines, which emit a lovely, soft bluish glow in the forbidding depths of space. Dawn is completing another elegant spiral around dwarf planet Ceres, maneuvering to its sixth science orbit.
Dawn’s ion propulsion system has allowed the probe to accomplish a mission unlike any other, orbiting two distant extraterrestrial destinations. Even more than that, Dawn has taken advantage of the exceptional efficiency of its ion engines to fly to orbits at different altitudes and orientations while at Vesta and at Ceres, gaining the best perspectives for its photography and other scientific investigations.
Dawn has thrust for a total of 5.7 years during its deep-space adventure. All that powered flight has imparted a change in the ship’s velocity of 25,000 mph (40,000 kilometers per hour). As we have seen, this is not the spacecraft’s actual speed, but it is a convenient measure of the effect of its propulsive work. Reaching Earth orbit requires only about 17,000 mph (less than 28,000 kilometers per hour). In fact, Dawn’s gentle ion engines have delivered almost 98 percent of the change in speed that its powerful Delta 7925H-9.5 rocket provided. With nine external rocket engines and a core consisting of a first stage, a second stage and a third stage, the Delta boosted Dawn by 25,640 mph (41,260 kilometers per hour) from Cape Canaveral out of Earth orbit and onto its interplanetary trajectory, after which the remarkable ion engines took over. No other spacecraft has accomplished such a large velocity change under its own power. (The previous record holder, Deep Space 1, achieved 9,600 mph, or 15,000 kilometers per hour.)
Early this year, we were highly confident Dawn would conclude its operational lifetime in its fourth orbit at Ceres (and remain there long after). But unexpectedly healthy and with an extension from NASA, Dawn is continuing its ambitious mission. After completing all of its tasks in its fifth scientific phase at Ceres, Dawn is pursuing new objectives by flying to another orbit for still more discoveries. Although we never anticipated adding a row to the table of Dawn’s orbits, last presented in December 2015, we now have an updated version.
in ft (m)
distance of a soccer ball
|1||RC3||04.23.15 – 05.09.15||8,400
|3||HAMO||08.17.15 – 10.23.15||915
|12.16.15 – 09.02.16||240
|5||XMO2||10.16.16 – 11.04.16||920
As with the obscure Dawn code names for other orbits, this fifth orbit’s name requires some explanation. The extended mission is devoted to undertaking activities not envisioned in the prime mission. That began with two extra months in the fourth mapping orbit performing many new observations, but because it was then the extended mission, that orbit was designated extended mission orbit 1, or XMO1. (It should have been EMO1, of course, but the team’s spellchecker was offline on July 1, the day the extended mission started.) Therefore, the next orbit was XMO2. Dawn left XMO2 on Nov. 4, and we leave it to readers’ imaginations to devise a name for the orbit the spacecraft is now maneuvering to.
Surprisingly, Dawn is flying higher to enhance part of the scientific investigation that motivated going to the lowest orbit. We have explained before that Dawn’s objective in powering its way down to the fourth mapping orbit was to make the most accurate measurements possible of gravity and of nuclear radiation emitted by the dwarf planet.
For more than eight months, the explorer orbited closer to the alien world than the International Space Station is to Earth, and the gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra it acquired are outstanding, significantly exceeding all expectations. But ever-creative scientists have recognized that even with that tremendous wealth of data, Dawn can do still better. Let’s look at this more carefully and consider an example to resolve the paradox of how going higher can yield an improvement.
The gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) reveals some of Ceres’ atomic constituents down to about a yard (meter) underground. The principal limitation in analyzing these spectra is "noise." In fact, noise limits the achievable accuracy of many scientific measurements. It isn’t necessarily the kind of noise that you hear from loud machinery (nor from the mouth of your unhelpful parent, inattentive progeny or boring and verbose coworker), but all natural systems have something similar. Physical processes other than the ones of interest make unwanted contributions to the measurements. The part of a measurement scientists want is called the "signal." The part of a measurement scientists don’t want is called the "noise." The quality of a measurement may be characterized by comparing the strength of the signal to the strength of the noise. (This metric is called the "signal to noise ratio" by people who like to use jargon like "signal to noise ratio.")
We have discussed that cosmic rays, radiation that pervades space, strike atomic nuclei on Ceres, creating the signals that GRaND measures. Remaining at low altitude would have allowed Dawn to enhance its measurement of the Cerean nuclear signal. But scientists determined that an even better way to improve the spectra than to increase the signal is to decrease the noise. GRaND’s noise is a result of cosmic rays impinging directly on the instrument itself and on nearby parts of the spacecraft. With a more thorough measurement of the noise from cosmic rays, scientists will be able to mathematically remove that component of the low altitude measurements, leaving a clearer signal.
For an illustration of all this, suppose you want to hear the words of a song. The words are the signal and the instruments are the noise. (This is a scientific discussion, not a musical one.) It could be that the instruments are so loud and distracting that you can’t make the words out easily.
You might try turning up the volume, because that increases the signal, but it increases the noise as well. If the performance is live, you might even try to position yourself closer to the singer, perhaps making the signal stronger without increasing the noise too much. (Other alternatives are simply to Google the song or ask the singer for a copy of the lyrics, but those methods would ruin this example.)
If you’re doing this in the 21st century (or later), there’s another trick you can employ, taking advantage of computer processing. Suppose you had a recording of the singing with the instruments and then obtained separate recordings of the instruments. You could subtract the musical sounds that constitute the noise, removing the contributions from both guitars, the drums, the harp, both ukuleles, the kazoo and all the theremins. And when you eliminate the noise of the instruments, what remains is the signal of the words, making them much more intelligible.
To obtain a better measure of the noise, Dawn needs to go to higher altitude, where GRaND will no longer detect Ceres. It will make detailed measurements of cosmic ray noise, which scientists then will subtract from their measurements at low altitude, where GRaND observed Ceres signal plus cosmic ray noise. The powerful capability to raise its orbit so much affords Dawn the valuable opportunity to gain greater insight into the atomic composition. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but essentially this method will help Dawn hear Ceres’ nuclear song more clearly.
To travel from one orbit to another, the sophisticated explorer has followed complex spiral routes. We have discussed the nature of these trajectories quite a bit, including how the operations team designs and flies them. But now they are using a slightly different method.
Those of you at Ceres who monitor the ship’s progress probably wouldn’t notice a difference in the type of trajectory. And the rest of you on Earth and elsewhere who keep track through our mission status updates also would not detect anything unusual in the ascent profile (to the extent that a spacecraft using ion propulsion to spiral around a dwarf planet is usual). But celestial navigators are now enjoying their use of a method they whimsically call local maximal energy spiral feedback control.
The details of the new technique are not as important for our discussion here as one of the consequences: Dawn’s next orbit will not be nearly as circular as any of its other orbits at Ceres (or at Vesta). Following the conclusion of this spiral ascent on Dec. 5, navigators will refine their computations of the orbit, and we will describe the details near the end of the month. We will see that as the spacecraft follows its elliptical loops around Ceres, each taking about a week, the altitude will vary smoothly, dipping below 4,700 miles (7,600 kilometers) and going above 5,700 miles (9,200 kilometers). Such a profile meets the mission’s needs, because as long as the craft stays higher than about 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers), it can make the planned recordings of the cacophonous cosmic rays. We will present other plans for this next phase of the mission as well, including photography, in an upcoming Dawn Journal.
As Dawn continues its work at Ceres, the dwarf planet continues its stately 4.6-year-long orbit around the sun, carrying Earth’s robotic ambassador with it. Ceres follows an elliptical path around the sun (see, for example, this discussion, including the table). In fact, all orbits, including Earth’s, are ellipses. Ceres’ orbit is more elliptical than Earth’s but not as much as some of the other planets. The shape of Ceres’ orbit is between that of Saturn (which is more circular) and Mars (which is more elliptical). (Of course, Ceres’ orbit is larger than Mars’ and smaller than Saturn’s, but here we are describing how much each orbit deviates from a perfect circle.)
When Ceres tenderly took Dawn into its gravitational embrace in March 2015, they were 2.87 AU (267 million miles, or 429 million kilometers) from the sun. In January 2016, we mentioned that Ceres had reached its aphelion, or greatest distance from the sun, at 2.98 AU (277 million miles, or 445 million kilometers). Today at 2.85 AU (265 million miles, or 427 million kilometers), Ceres is closer to the sun than at any time since Dawn arrived, and the heliocentric distance will gradually decrease further throughout the extended mission. (If the number of numbers is overwhelming here, you might reread this paragraph while paying attention to only one set of units, whether you choose AU, miles or kilometers. Ignore the other two scales so you can focus on the relative distances.)
Another consequence of orbiting the sun is the progression of seasons. Right on schedule, as we boldly predicted in August 2015, Nov. 13 was the equinox on Ceres, marking the beginning of northern hemisphere autumn and southern hemisphere spring. Although it is celebrated on Ceres with less zeal than on Earth, it is fundamentally the same: the sun was directly over the equator that day, and now it is moving farther south. It takes Ceres so long to orbit the sun that this season will last until Dec. 22, 2017.
A celebration that might occur on Ceres (and which you, loyal Dawnophile, are welcome to attend) would honor Dawn itself. Although the spacecraft completed its ninth terrestrial year of spaceflight in September, on Dec. 12, it will have been two Cerean years since Dawn left Earth for its interplanetary journey. Be sure to attend in order to learn how a dawnniversary is commemorated in that part of the solar system.
Although a year on Ceres lasts much longer than on Earth, 2016 is an unusually long year on our home planet. Not only was a leap day included, but a leap second will be added at the very end of the year to keep celestial navigators’ clocks in sync with nature. The Dawn team already has accounted for the extra second in the intricate plans formulated for the spacecraft. And at that second, on Dec. 31 at 23:59:60, we will be able to look back on 366 days and one second, an especially full and gratifying year in this remarkable deep-space expedition. But we needn’t wait. Even now, as mission control is bathed in a lovely glow, the members of the team as well as space enthusiasts everywhere are aglow with the thrill of new knowledge, the excitement of a daring, noble adventure and the anticipation of more to come.
Dawn is 3,150 miles (5,070 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.08 AU (194 million miles, or 312 million kilometers) from Earth, or 770 times as far as the moon and 2.11 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 35 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PST November 28, 2016
Dear Glutdawnous Readers,
The distant dwarf planet that Dawn is circling is full of mystery and yet growing ever more familiar.
Ceres, which only last year was hardly more than a fuzzy blob against the stars, is now a richly detailed world, and our portrait grows more elaborate every day. Having greatly surpassed all of its original objectives, the reliable explorer is gathering still more data from its unique vantage point. Everyone who hungers for new knowledge about the cosmos or for bold adventures far from Earth can share in the sumptuous feast Dawn has been serving.
One of the major objectives of the mission was to photograph 80 percent of Ceres' vast landscape with a resolution of 660 feet (200 meters) per pixel. That would provide 150 times the clarity of the powerful Hubble Space Telescope. Dawn has now photographed 99.8 percent with a resolution of 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel.
This example of Dawn's extraordinary productivity may appear to be the limit of what it could achieve. After all, the spaceship is orbiting at an altitude of only 240 miles (385 kilometers), closer to the ground than the International Space Station is to Earth, and it will never go lower for more pictures. But it is already doing more.
Since April 11, instead of photographing the scenery directly beneath it, Dawn has been aiming its camera to the left and forward as it orbits and Ceres rotates. By May 25, it will have mapped most of the globe from that angle. Then it will start all over once more, looking instead to the right and forward from May 27 through July 10. The different perspectives on the terrain make stereo views, which scientists can combine to bring out the full three dimensionality of the alien world. Dawn already accomplished this in its third mapping orbit from four times its current altitude, but now that it is seeing the sights from so much lower, the new topographical map will be even more accurate.
Dawn is also earning extra credit on its assignment to measure the energy of gamma rays and neutrons. We have discussed before how the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) can reveal the atomic composition down to about a yard (meter) underground, and last month we saw initial findings about the distribution of hydrogen. However, Ceres' nuclear glow is very faint. Scientists already have three times as much GRaND data from this low altitude as they had required, and both spectrometers in the instrument will continue to collect data. In effect, Dawn is achieving a longer exposure, making its nuclear picture of Ceres brighter and sharper.
In December we explained how using the radio signal to track the probe's movements allows scientists to chart the gravity field and thereby learn about the interior of Ceres, revealing regions of higher and lower density. Once again, Dawn performed even better than expected and achieved the mission's planned accuracy in the third mapping orbit. Because the strength of the dwarf planet's gravitational tug depends on the distance, even finer measurements of how it varies from location to location are possible in this final orbit. Thanks to the continued smooth operation of the mission, scientists now have a gravitational map fully twice as accurate as they had anticipated. With additional measurements, they may be able to squeeze out a little more detail, perhaps improving it by another 20 percent before reaching the method's limit.
Dawn has dramatically overachieved in acquiring spectra at both visible and infrared wavelengths. We have previously delved into how these measurements reveal the minerals on the ground and what some of the interesting discoveries are. Having already acquired more than seven times as many visible spectra and 21 times as many infrared spectra as originally called for, the spacecraft is adding to its riches with additional measurements. We saw in January that VIR has such a narrow view that it will never see all of Ceres from this close, so it is programmed to observe features that have caught scientists' interest based on the broad coverage from higher altitudes.
Dawn's remarkable success at Ceres was not a foregone conclusion. Of course, the flight team has confronted the familiar challenges people encounter every day in the normal routine of piloting an ion-propelled spaceship on a multibillion-mile (multibillion-kilometer) interplanetary journey to orbit and explore two uncharted worlds. But the mission was further complicated by the loss of two of the spacecraft's four reaction wheels, as we have recounted before. (In full disclosure, the devices aren’t actually lost. We know precisely where they are. But given that one stopped functioning in 2010 and the other in 2012, they might as well be elsewhere in the universe; they don’t do Dawn any good.) Without three of these units to control its orientation in space, the robot has relied on its limited supply of hydrazine, which was not intended to serve this function. But the mission's careful stewardship of the precious propellant has continued to exceed even the optimistic predictions, allowing Dawn good prospects for carrying on its fruitful work. In an upcoming Dawn Journal, we will discuss how the last of the dwindling supply of hydrazine may be used for further discoveries.
In the meantime, Dawn is continuing its intensive campaign to reveal the dwarf planet's secrets, and as it does so, it is passing several milestones. The adventurer has now been held in Ceres' tender but firm gravitational embrace longer than it was in orbit around Vesta. (Dawn is the only spacecraft ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, and its mission would have been impossible without ion propulsion.) The spacecraft provided us with about 31,000 pictures of Vesta, and it has now acquired the same number of Ceres.
For an interplanetary traveler, terrestrial days have little meaning. They are merely a memory of how long a faraway planet takes to turn on its axis. Dawn left that planet long ago, and as one of Earth's ambassadors to the cosmos, it is an inhabitant of deep space. But for those who keep track of its progress yet are still tied to Earth, on May 3 the journey will be pi thousand days long. (And for our nerdier friends and selves, it will be shortly after 6:47 p.m. PDT.)
By any measure, Dawn has already accomplished an extraordinary mission, and there is more to look forward to as its ambitious expedition continues.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.73 AU (346 million miles, or 558 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,455 times as far as the moon and 3.70 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and two minutes to make the round trip.
Dear Resplendawnt Readers,
Scientists are still working on refining their understanding of this striking region.
One year after taking up its new residence in the solar system, Dawn is continuing to witness extraordinary sights on dwarf planet Ceres. The indefatigable explorer is carrying out its intensive campaign of exploration from a tight orbit, circling its gravitational master at an altitude of only 240 miles (385 kilometers).
Even as we marvel at intriguing pictures and other discoveries, scientists are still in the early stages of putting together the pieces of the big puzzle of how (and where) Ceres formed, what its subsequent history has been, what geological processes are still occurring on this alien world and what all that reveals about the solar system.
For many readers who have not visited Ceres on their own, Occator Crater is the most mysterious and captivating feature. (To resolve the mystery of how to pronounce it, listen to the animation below.) As Dawn peered ahead at its destination in the beginning of 2015, the interplanetary traveler observed what appeared to be a bright spot, a shining beacon guiding the way for a ship sailing on the celestial seas. With its mesmerizing glow, the uncharted world beckoned, and Dawn answered the cosmic invitation by venturing in for a closer look, entering into Ceres' gravitational embrace. The latest pictures are one thousand times sharper than those early views. What was not so long ago a single bright spot has now come into focus as a complex distribution of reflective material in a 57-mile (92-kilometer) crater.
As we described in December, it seems that following the powerful impact that excavated Occator Crater, underground briny water reached the surface. The detailed photographs show many fractures cutting across the bright areas, and perhaps they provided a conduit. Water, whether as liquid or ice, would not last long there in the cold vacuum, eventually subliming. When the water molecules disperse, either escaping from Ceres into space or falling back to settle elsewhere, the dissolved salts are left behind. This reflective residue covers the ground, making the spellbinding and beautiful display Dawn now reveals.
While the crater is estimated to be a geological youngster at 80 million years old, that is an extremely long time for the material to remain so reflective. Exposed for so long to cosmic radiation and pelting from the rain of debris from space, it should have darkened. Scientists don't know (yet) what physical process are responsible, but perhaps it was replenished long after the crater itself formed, with more water, carrying dissolved salts, finding its way to the surface. As their analyses of the photos and spectra continue, scientists will gain a clearer picture and be able to answer this and other questions.
These latest Occator pictures did not come easily. Orbiting so close to Ceres, the adventurer’s camera captures only a small scene at a time, and it is challenging to cover the entirety of the expansive terrain. (Perhaps it comes as a surprise to those who have not read at least a few of the 123 Dawn Journals that precede this one that operating a spacecraft closer to a faraway dwarf planet than the International Space Station is to Earth is not as easy as, say, thinking about it.) But the patience and persistence in photographing the exotic landscapes have paid off handsomely.
We now have high resolution pictures of essentially all of Ceres save the small area around the south pole cloaked in the deep dark of a long winter night. Seasons last longer on Ceres than on Earth, and Dawn may not operate there long enough for the sun to rise at the south pole. By the beginning of southern hemisphere spring in November 2016, Dawn's mission to explore the first dwarf planet discovered may have come to its end.
In addition to photographing Ceres, Dawn conducts many other scientific observations, as we described in December and January. Among the probe's objectives at Ceres is to provide information for scientists to understand how much water is there, where it is, what form it is in and what role it plays in the geology.
We saw that extensive measurements of the faint nuclear radiation can help identify the atomic constituents. While the analysis of the data is complicated, and much more needs to be done, a picture is beginning to emerge from Dawn's neutron spectrometer (part of the gamma ray and neutron detector, GRaND). These subatomic particles are emitted from the nuclei of atoms buried within about a yard (meter) of the surface. Some manage to penetrate the material above them and fly into space, and the helpful ones then meet their fate upon hitting GRaND in orbit above. (Most others, however, will continue to fly through interplanetary space, decaying into a trio of other subatomic particles in less than an hour.) Before it escapes from the ground, a neutron's energy (and, equivalently, its speed) is strongly affected by any encounters with the nuclei of hydrogen atoms (although other atomic interactions can change the energy too). Therefore, the neutron energies can indicate to scientists the abundance of hydrogen. Among the most common forms in which hydrogen is found is water (composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom), which can occur as ice or tied up in hydrated minerals.
GRaND shows Ceres is rich in hydrogen. Moreover, it detects more neutrons in an important energy range near the equator than near the poles, likely indicating there is more hydrogen, and hence more (frozen) water, in the ground at the high latitudes. Although Ceres is farther from the sun than Earth, and you would not consider it balmy there, it still receives some warmth. Just as at Earth, the sun's heating is less effective closer to the poles than at low latitudes, so this distribution of ice in the ground may reflect the temperature differences. Where it is warmer, ice close to the surface would have sublimed more quickly, thus depleting the inventory compared to the cooler ground far to the north or south.
Dawn spends most of its time measuring neutrons (and gamma rays), so it is providing a great deal of new data. And as scientists conduct additional analyses, they will learn more about the ice and other materials beneath the surface.
Another spectrometer is providing more tantalizing clues about the composition of Ceres, which is seen to vary widely. As the dwarf planet is not simply a huge rock but is a geologically active world, it is no surprise that it is not homogeneous. We discussed in December that the infrared mapping spectrometer had shown that minerals known as phyllosilicates are common on Ceres. Further studies of the data show evidence for the presence of two types: ammoniated phyllosilicates (described in December) and magnesium phyllosilicates. Scientists also find evidence of compounds known as carbonates, minerals that contain carbon and oxygen. There is also a dark substance in the mix that has not been identified yet.
And in one place (so far) on Ceres, this spectrometer has directly observed water, not below the surface but on the ground. The infrared signature shows up in a small crater named Oxo. (For the pronunciation, listen to the animation below.) As with the neutron spectra, it is too soon to know whether the water is in the form of ice or is chemically bound up in minerals.
At six miles (10 kilometers) in diameter, Oxo is small in comparison to the largest craters on Ceres, which are more than 25 times wider. (While geologists consider it a small crater, you might not agree if it formed in your backyard. Also note that when we showed Oxo Crater before, the diameter was slightly different. The crater's size has not changed since then, but as we receive sharper pictures, our measurements of feature sizes do change.) Dawn's first orbital destination, the fascinating protoplanet Vesta, is smaller than Ceres and yet has two craters far broader than the largest on Ceres. Based on studies of craters observed throughout the solar system, scientists have established methods of calculating the number and sizes of craters that could be formed on planetary surfaces. Those techniques show that Ceres is deficient in large craters. That is, more should have formed than appear in Dawn's pictures. Many other bodies (including Vesta and the moon) seem to preserve their craters for much longer, so this may be a clue about internal geological processes on Ceres that gradually erase the large craters.
Scientists are still in the initial stages of digesting and absorbing the tremendous wealth of data Dawn has been sending to Earth. The benefit of lingering in orbit (enabled by the remarkable ion propulsion system), rather than being limited to a brief glimpse during a fast flyby, is that the explorer can undertake much more thorough studies, and Dawn is continuing to make new measurements.
As recently as one year ago, controllers (and this writer) had great concern about the spacecraft's longevity given the loss of two reaction wheels, which are used for controlling the ship's orientation. And in 2014, when the flight team worked out the intricate instructions Dawn would follow in this fourth and final mapping orbit, they planned for three months of operation. That was deemed to be more than enough, because Dawn only needed half that time to accomplish the necessary measurements. Experienced spacecraft controllers recognize that there are myriad ways beautiful plans could go awry, so they planned for more time in order to ensure that the objectives would be met even if anomalies occurred. They also were keenly aware that the mission could very well conclude after three months of low altitude operations, with Dawn using up the last of its hydrazine. But their efforts since then to conserve hydrazine proved very effective. In addition, the two remaining wheels have been operating well since they were powered on in December, further reducing the consumption of the precious propellant.
As it turned out, operations have been virtually flawless in this orbit, and the first three months yielded a tremendous bounty, even including some new measurements that had not been part of the original plans. And because the entire mission at Ceres has gone so well, Dawn has not expended as much hydrazine as anticipated.
Dawn is now performing measurements that were not envisioned long in advance but rather developed only in the past two months, when it was apparent that the expedition could continue. And since March 19, Dawn has been following a new strategy to use even less hydrazine. Instead of pointing its sensors straight down at the scenery passing beneath it as the spacecraft orbits and Ceres rotates, the probe looks a little to the left. The angle is only five degrees (equal to the angle the minute hand of a clock moves in only 50 seconds, or less than the interval between adjacent minute tick marks), but that is enough to decrease the use of hydrazine and thus extend the spacecraft's lifetime. (We won't delve into the reason here. But for fellow nerds, it has to do with the alignment of the axes of the operable reaction wheels with the plane in which Dawn rotates to keep its instruments pointed at Ceres and its solar arrays pointed at the sun. The hydrazine saving depends on the wheels' ability to store angular momentum and applies only in hybrid control, not in pure hydrazine control. Have fun figuring out the details. We did!)
The angle is small enough now that the pictures will not look substantially different, but they will provide data that will help determine the topography. (Measurements of gravity and the neutron, gamma ray and infrared spectra are insensitive to this angle.) Dawn took pictures at a variety of angles during the third mapping orbit at Ceres (and in two of the mapping orbits at Vesta, HAMO1 and HAMO2) in order to get stereo views for topography. That worked exceedingly well, and photos from this lower altitude will allow an even finer determination of the three dimensional character of the landscape in selected regions. Beginning on April 11, Dawn will look at a new angle to gain still another perspective. That will actually increase the rate of hydrazine expenditure, but the savings now help make that more affordable. Besides, this is a mission of exploration and discovery, not a mission of hydrazine conservation. We save hydrazine when we can in order to spend it when we need it. Dawn's charge is to use the hydrazine to accomplish important scientific objectives and to pursue bold, exciting goals that lift our spirits and fuel our passion for knowledge and adventure. And that is exactly what it is has done and what it will continue to do.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.90 AU (362 million miles, or 583 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,505 times as far as the moon and 3.90 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and five minutes to make the round trip.
Dear Indawnbitably Successful Readers,
A story of intense curiosity about the cosmos, passionate perseverance and bold ingenuity, a story more than two centuries in the making, has reached an extraordinary point. It begins with the discovery of dwarf planet Ceres in 1801 (129 years before its sibling Pluto; each was designated a planet for a time). Protoplanet Vesta was discovered in 1807. Following 200 years of telescopic observations, Dawn's daring mission was to explore these two uncharted worlds, the largest, most massive residents of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. And now, as of February 2016, the spacecraft has accomplished all of the objectives that NASA defined for it in 2004, even before construction began (and before the very first Dawn Journal, nearly a decade ago).More than eight years after leaving its erstwhile planetary home behind for an ambitious deep space adventure, Dawn has now collected all of the data originally planned. Indeed, even prior to this third intercalary day of its expedition, the probe had already actually sent back a great deal more data for all investigations, significantly exceeding not only the original goals but also new ones added after the ship had set sail on the interplanetary seas. While scientists have a great deal of work still ahead to translate the bounty of data into knowledge, which is the greatest joy of science, the spacecraft can continue its work with the satisfaction that it has fulfilled its purpose and achieved an outstandingly successful mission.
Dawn is the only spacecraft ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, which would have been impossible without its advanced ion propulsion system. It is the only spacecraft ever to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt. It is also the only spacecraft ever to orbit massive bodies (apart from the sun and Earth) that had not been visited first by a flyby spacecraft to characterize the gravity and other properties. (By the way, Ceres is one of eight solar system bodies that operating spacecraft are orbiting now. The others are the sun, Venus, Earth, the moon, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Mars and Saturn.)
Now in its fourth and final mapping orbit at Ceres, at an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers), Dawn is closer to the exotic terrain than the International Space Station is to Earth. The benefit of being in orbit is that the probe can linger rather than take only a brief look during a fast flyby. Even though Dawn has met its full list of objectives at Ceres, it continues to return new, valuable pictures and other measurements to provide even greater insight into this relict from the dawn of the solar system. For example, it is acquiring more nuclear spectra with its gamma ray and neutron detector, sharpening its picture of some atomic elements on Ceres. In addition, taking advantage of its unique vantage point, Dawn is collecting more infrared spectra of locations that are of special interest and soon will also take color photos and stereo photos (as it did in the third mapping orbit) of selected areas.
Dawn has completed more than 600 revolutions since taking up residence one year ago. The first few orbits took several weeks each, but as the spacecraft descended and Ceres' gravitational embrace grew more firm, its orbital velocity increased and the orbital period decreased. Now circling in less than five and a half hours, Dawn has made 370 orbits since reaching this altitude on Dec. 7.
The pace of observations here is higher than in the previous mapping orbits, where the orbital periods were longer. The spacecraft flies over the landscape faster now, and being closer to the ground, its instruments discern much more detail but capture a smaller area. Mission controllers have developed intricate plans for observing Ceres, but those plans depend on the spacecraft being at the right place at the right time. As we will see below, however, sometimes it may not be.
Suppose, for example, the intent is to observe a particular feature, perhaps the bright center of Occator crater, the lonely, towering mountain Ahuna Mons, the fractures in Dantu crater or artificial structures that definitively prove the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, utterly transforming our understanding of the cosmos and shattering our naive perspectives on life in the universe. Trajectory analysis indicates when Dawn will fly over the designated location, and engineers will program it to take pictures or infrared spectra at that time. They will also include some margin, so they may program it to start 10 minutes before and end 10 minutes after. But they can't afford to put in too much margin. Data storage on the spacecraft is limited, so other geological features could not be observed. Also, transmitting data to Earth requires pointing the main antenna at that distant planet instead of pointing sensors at Ceres, so it would be unwise to collect much more than is necessary.
Even if devoting additional time (and data) to trying to observe the desired place were feasible, it wouldn't necessarily solve the problem. Dawn travels in a polar orbit, which is the only way to ensure that it passes over all latitudes. While Dawn soars from north to south over the sunlit hemisphere making its observations, the dwarf planet itself rotates on its axis, so the ground moves from east to west. If the spacecraft arrives at the planned orbital location a little early or a little late, the feature of interest may not even be beneath it but rather could be too far east or west, out of view of the instruments. In that case, increasing the duration of the observation period doesn't help.
All of that is why, as we saw last month, it requires more pictures to fully map Ceres than you might expect. Many pictures may have to be taken in order to fill in gaps, and quite a few of the pictures overlap with others. Nevertheless, Dawn has done an excellent job. The spacecraft has photographed 99.6 percent of the dwarf planet from this low altitude. (If you aren't regularly visiting the image gallery, you are missing out on some truly out-of-this-world scenes.)
The flight team devises very detailed plans that tell the spacecraft what to do every second, including where to point and what data to collect with each sensor. When the observation plans are developed, they are checked and double-checked. Then they are translated into the appropriate software that the robotic ship will understand, and these instructions are checked and double-checked. That is integrated with all the other software that will be beamed to the spacecraft covering the same period of time, any conflicts are resolved and then the final version is checked and, well, you know.
This process is very involved, and it is usually well over a month between the formulation and the execution of the plan. During that time, Dawn's orbit can deviate slightly from the expert navigators' mathematical predictions, preventing the spacecraft from flying over the desired targets. There are several reasons the actual orbit may differ from the orbit used for developing the plan. (We have seen related examples of this, including as Dawn approached Mars, when it orbited Vesta and when it spiraled from one mapping orbit to another.) Let's briefly consider two.
One reason is that we do not have perfect knowledge of the variations in the strength of Ceres' gravitational pull from one location to another. We have discussed before that measuring these tiny irregularities in the gravity field provides insight into the distribution of mass within the dwarf planet that gives rise to them. The team has mapped the hills and valleys of the field quite well and even better than expected. Still, the remaining small uncertainty can lead to slight differences between what navigators calculate Dawn's motion will be and what its actual motion will be as it is buffeted by the gravitational currents.
A second source of discrepancy is that Dawn's own activities distort its orbit. Every time the reaction control system expels a tiny burst of hydrazine to control the spacecraft's orientation, keeping it pointed at its target, the force not only affects the orientation but also nudges the probe in its orbit, slowing it down or speeding it up very slightly. It's up to the spacecraft to decide exactly when to make these small adjustments, and it is not possible for controllers to predict their timing. (In a similar way, when you are driving, you occasionally move the steering wheel to keep going the direction you want, even if is straight ahead. It would be impossible to forecast each tiny movement, because they all depend on what has already happened plus the exact conditions at the moment.) The details of the reaction control system activity also depend on the use of the novel hybrid control scheme, which the joint Orbital/JPL team developed because of the failure of two of the spacecraft's four reaction wheels. The effect of each small firing of hydrazine is very small, but they can add up.
It took about a month in this mapping orbit to discover many of the subtleties of the gravity field and gain experience with how hybrid control affects the orbit. But even before descending to this altitude, the operations team understood the nature of these effects and was well prepared to deal with them.
They devised several strategies, all of which are being used to good effect. One of the ways to account for Dawn's actual orbit differing from its planned orbit is simply to change the orbit. Simply? Well, not really. It turns out to that to analyze the orbit and then maneuver to correct it in a timely way is a surprisingly complicated process, but, come to think of it, what isn't complicated when flying a spaceship around a distant, alien world? Nevertheless, every three weeks, the flight team makes a careful assessment of the orbit and determines whether a small refinement with the ion propulsion system is in order. For technical reasons, if maneuvers are needed, they will be executed in pairs, so mission planners have scheduled two windows (each 12 hours long and separated by eight days) about every 23 days.
Adjustments to resynchronize the actual orbit with the predicted orbit that formed the basis of the exploration plan are known as “orbit maintenance maneuvers.” Succumbing to instincts developed during their long evolutionary history, engineers refer to them by an acronym: OMM. (As the common thread among team members is their technical training and passion for the exploration of the cosmos, and not Buddhism, the term is spoken by naming the letters, not pronouncing it as if it were a means of achieving inner peace. Instead, it may be thought of as a means of achieving orbital tranquility and harmony.)
For both Vesta and Ceres, trajectory analyses long in advance determined that OMMs would not be needed in the higher orbits, so no windows were included in those schedules. There have been three OMM opportunities since arriving at the lowest altitude above Ceres, but only the first was needed. Dawn performed the pair on Dec. 31-Jan. 1 and on Jan. 8 with its famously efficient ion engine. The orbit was good enough the next two times that OMMs were deemed unnecessary. It is certain that some future OMMs will be required. Your faithful correspondent provides frequent (and uncharacteristically concise) reports on Dawn's day-to-day activities, including OMMs.
By the end of the Jan. 8 OMM, Dawn's ion propulsion system had accumulated 2,019 days of operation in space, more than 5.5 years. During that time, the effective change in speed was 24,600 mph (39,600 kilometers per hour). (We have discussed in detail that this is not Dawn's current speed but rather the amount by which the ion engines have changed it.) This is uniquely high for a spacecraft to accomplish with its own propulsion system and validates our description of ion propulsion as delivering acceleration with patience. (The previous record holder, Deep Space 1, achieved 9,600 mph, or 15,000 kilometers per hour.)
The effect of Dawn's gentle ion thrusting during its mission has been nearly the same as that of the entire Delta II 7925H-9.5 rocket, with its nine external rocket engines, first stage, second stage and third stage. To get started on its interplanetary adventure, Dawn's rocket boosted it from Cape Canaveral to out of Earth orbit with only four percent higher velocity than Dawn subsequently added on its own with its ion engines.
As Dawn and Earth follow their own independent orbits around the sun (Dawn's now tied permanently to its gravitational master, Ceres), next month they will reach their greatest separation of the entire mission. On March 4 (about one Earth year after Ceres took hold of Dawn), on opposite sides of the solar system, they will be 3.95278 AU (367.434 million miles, or 591.328 million kilometers) from each other. (For those of you with full schedules, note that the maximum separation will be 5:40 a.m. PST.) They won't be this far apart again until Feb. 6, 2025, long after Dawn has ceased operating (as discussed below). The figure below depicts the arrangement next month.
Dawn has faced many challenges in its unique voyage in the forbidding depths of space, but it has surmounted all of them. It has even overcome the dire threat posed by the loss of two reaction wheels (the second failure occurring in orbit around Vesta 3.5 years and 1.3 billion miles, or 2.0 billion kilometers, ago). With only two operable reaction wheels (and those no longer trustworthy), the ship's remaining lifetime is very limited.
A year ago, the team couldn't count on Dawn even having enough hydrazine to last beyond next month. But the creative methods of conserving that precious resource have proved to be quite efficacious, and the reliable explorer still has enough hydrazine to continue to return bonus data for a while longer. Now it seems highly likely that the spacecraft will keep functioning through the scheduled end of its primary mission on June 30, 2016.
NASA may choose to continue the mission even after that. Such decisions are difficult, as there is literally an entire universe full of interesting subjects to study, but resources are more limited. In any case, even if NASA extended the mission, and even if the two wheels operated without faltering, and even if the intensive campaign of investigating Ceres executed flawlessly, losing not an ounce (or even a gram) of hydrazine to the kinds of glitches that can occur in such a complex undertaking, the hydrazine would be exhausted early in 2017. Clearly an earlier termination remains quite possible.
Regardless of when Dawn's end comes, it will not be a time for regret. The mission has realized its raison d'être and is reaping rewards even beyond those envisioned when it was conceived. It has taken us all on a marvelous interplanetary journey and allowed us to behold previously unseen sights of distant lands. The conclusion of the mission will be a time for gratitude that it was so successful. And until then, every new picture or other measurement adds to the richly detailed portrait of a faraway, exotic world. There is plenty more still to do before this remarkable story draws to a close.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.95 AU (367 million miles, or 591 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,475 times as far as the moon and 3.99 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and six minutes to make the round trip.
A veteran interplanetary traveler is writing the closing chapter in its long and storied expedition. In its final orbit, where it will remain even beyond the end of its mission, at its lowest altitude, Dawn is circling dwarf planet Ceres, gathering an album of spellbinding pictures and other data to reveal the nature of this mysterious world of rock and ice.
Ceres turns on its axis in a little more than nine hours (one Cerean day). Meanwhile, its new permanent companion, a robotic emissary from Earth, revolves in a polar orbit, completing a loop in slightly under 5.5 hours. It flies from the north pole to the south over the side of Ceres facing the sun. Then when it heads north, the ground beneath it is cloaked in the deep dark of night on a world without a moon (save Dawn itself). As we discussed last month, Dawn's primary measurements do not depend on illumination. It can sense the nuclear radiation (specifically, gamma rays and neutrons) and the gravity field regardless of the lighting. This month, let's take a look at the other measurements our explorer is performing, most of which do depend on sunlight.
Of course the photographs do. Dawn had already mapped Ceres quite thoroughly from higher altitudes. The spacecraft acquired an extensive set of stereo and color pictures in its third mapping orbit. But now that Dawn is only about 240 miles (385 kilometers) high, its images are four times as sharp, revealing new details of the strange and beautiful landscapes.
Our spaceship is closer to Ceres than the International Space Station is to Earth. At that short range, it takes a long time to capture all of the vast territory, because each picture covers a relatively small area. Dawn’s camera sees a square about 23 miles (37 kilometers) on a side, less than one twentieth of one percent of the more than one million square miles (nearly 2.8 million square kilometers). In an ideal world (which is not the one Dawn is in or at), it would take just over two thousand photos from this altitude to see all the sights. However, as we will discuss in more detail next month, it is not possible to control the orbital motion and the pointing of the camera accurately enough to manage without more photos than that.
Most of the time, Dawn is programmed to turn at just the right rate to keep looking at the ground beneath it as it travels, synchronizing its rotation with its revolution around Ceres. It photographs the passing scenery, storing the pictures for later transmission to Earth. But some of the time, it cannot take pictures, because to send its bounty of data, it needs to point its main antenna at that distant planet, home not only to its controllers but also to many others (including you, loyal reader) who share in the thrill of a bold cosmic adventure. Dawn spends about three and a half days (nine Cerean days) with its camera and other sensors pointed at Ceres. Then it radios its findings home for a little more than one day (almost three Cerean days). During these communications sessions, even when it soars over lit terrain, it does not observe the sights below.
Mission planners have devised an intricate plan that should allow nearly complete coverage in about six weeks. To accomplish this, they guided Dawn to a carefully chosen orbit, and it has been doing an exceptionally good job there executing its complex activities.
Last month, we marveled at a stunning view that was not the typical perspective of peering straight down from orbit. Sometimes controllers now program Dawn to take a few more pictures after it stops aiming its instruments down, while it starts to turn to aim its antenna to Earth. This clever idea provides bonus views of whatever happens to be in the camera's sights as it slowly rotates from the point beneath the spacecraft off to the horizon. Who doesn't feel the attraction of the horizon and long to know what lies beyond?
Another of Dawn's scientific devices is two different sensors combined into one instrument. Like the camera, the visible and infrared mapping spectrometers (VIR) look at the sunlight reflected from the ground. (As we'll see below, however, VIR also can detect something more.) A spectrometer breaks up light into its constituent colors, just as a prism or a droplet of water does when revealing, quite literally, all the colors of the rainbow. Dawn's visible spectrometer would have a view very much like that. The infrared spectrometer, of course, looks at wavelengths of light our limited eyes cannot see, just as there are wavelengths of sound our limited ears cannot hear (consult with your dog for details).
A spectrometer does more than simply disperse the light into its components, however. It measures the intensity of that light at the different wavelengths. The materials on the surface leave their signature in the sunlight they reflect, making some wavelengths relatively brighter and some dimmer. That characteristic pattern is called a spectrum. By comparing these spectra with spectra measured in laboratories, scientists can infer the nature of the minerals on the ground. We described some of the intriguing conclusions last month.
VIR does still more. Rather than record the visible spectrum and the infrared spectrum from a single region, it takes spectra at 256 adjacent locations simultaneously. This would be like taking one column of 256 pixels in a picture and having a separate spectrum for each. By stitching columns together, you could construct the two dimensional picture but with the added dimension of an extensive spectrum at every location. (Because the extra information provides a sort of depth that flat pictures don't have, the result is sometimes called an “image cube.”) This capability to build up an image with spectra everywhere is what makes it a mapping spectrometer. VIR produces a remarkably rich view of its targets!
VIR's spectra contain much finer measurements of the colors and a wider range of wavelengths than the camera's images. In exchange, the camera has sharper vision and so can discern smaller geological features. In more technical terms, VIR achieves better spectral resolution and the camera achieves better spatial resolution. Fortunately, it is not a competition, because Dawn has both, and the instruments yield complementary measurements.
VIR generates a very large volume of data in each snapshot. As a result, Dawn can only capture and store relatively small areas of the dwarf planet with the mapping spectrometers, especially at this low altitude. Scientists have recognized from the first design of the mission that it would not be possible to cover all of Ceres (or Vesta) with VIR from the closer orbits. Nevertheless, Dawn has far exceeded expectations, returning a great many more spectra than anticipated. Still, as long as the spacecraft operates in this final mapping orbit, there will continue to be interesting targets to study with VIR.
Based on the nearly 20 million spectra of Ceres that VIR acquired from higher altitudes, the team has determined that new infrared spectra will provide more insight into the dwarf planet's character than the visible spectra. Because of their composition, the minerals display more salient signatures in infrared wavelengths than visible. The excellent visible spectra from the first three mapping orbits are deemed more than sufficient. Therefore, to make the best use of our faithful probe and to dedicate the resources to what is most likely to yield new knowledge about Ceres, VIR is devoting its share of the mission data in this final orbit to its infrared mapping spectrometer. We have many more exciting discoveries to look forward to!
The infrared light Ceres reflects from the sun can tell scientists a great deal about the composition, but they can learn even more from analyzing VIR's measurements. The sun isn't the only source of infrared. Ceres itself is. Many people correctly associate infrared with heat, because warm objects emit infrared light, and the strength at different wavelengths depends on the temperature. That calls for measuring the spectrum! Distant from the sun though it is, Ceres is warmed slightly by the brilliant star, so it has a very faint infrared glow of its own. Scientists can distinguish in VIR's observations between the reflected infrared sunlight and the infrared light Ceres radiates. In essence, VIR can function as a remote thermometer.
Last month, in one of Dawn's best photos yet of Ceres, we considered planning a hike across a breathtaking landscape. In case we do, VIR has shown we should be prepared for chilly conditions. Observed temperatures (all rounded to the nearest multiple of five) during the day on the dwarf planet range from -135 degrees Fahrenheit (-95 degrees Celsius) to -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-35 degrees Celsius). (It is so cold in some locations and times, especially at night, that Ceres produces too little infrared light for VIR to measure. Temperatures below the coldest reported here actually don't register.) This finding provides compelling support for this writer's frequent claim that Ceres is really cool. In addition, knowing the temperatures will be very important for understanding geological processes on this icy, rocky world, just as we know the movement of terrestrial glaciers depends on temperature.
Your loyal correspondent can't -- or, at least, won't -- help but indulge his nerdiness with a brief tangent. The range of temperatures above represent the warmest on Ceres, given that VIR cannot measure lower values. It's amusing, if you have a similar weird sense of humor, that Ceres' average temperature apparently is not that far from what it would be for a black hole of the same mass. We won't delve into the physics here, but such a black hole would be -225 degrees Fahrenheit (-140 degrees Celsius). OK, enough hilarity. Back to Dawn and Ceres...
Ever creative, scientists are attempting another clever method to gain insight into the nature of this exotic orb. When Dawn is at just the right position in its orbit on the far side of Ceres, so that a straight line to Earth passes very close to the limb of Ceres itself, the spacecraft's radio signal will actually hit the dwarf planet. The radio waves interact with the materials on the surface, which can induce an exquisitely subtle distortion. After bouncing off the ground at a grazing angle, the radio signal continues on its way, heading toward Earth. The effect on the signal is much too small to affect the normal communications at all, but specialized equipment at NASA's Deep Space Network designed for this purpose might still be able to detect the tiny changes. The fantastically sensitive antennas measure the properties of the radio waves, and by studying the details, scientists may be able to learn more about the properties of the surface of the distant world. For example, this could help them distinguish between different types of materials (such as ice, rocks, sand, etc.) as well as reveal how rough or smooth the ground is at scales far, far smaller than the camera can discern. This is an extremely challenging measurement, and no small distortions have been detected so far, but always making the best possible use of the resources, scientists continue to look for them.
In addition to those bonus measurements, Dawn remains very productive in acquiring infrared spectra, photographs, gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra plus conducting measurements of the massive body's gravitational field, all of which contribute to unlocking the mysteries of the first dwarf planet ever discovered or explored. The venerable adventurer is in good condition and is operating flawlessly.
We have discussed extensively the failures of two of the four reaction wheels, devices Dawn used to depend on to control its orientation in space. Without three healthy reaction wheels, the probe has had to rely instead on hydrazine propellant expelled from the small jets of the reaction control system. (When Dawn uses its ion engine, that remarkable system does double duty, reducing the need for the hydrazine.)
For most of the time since escaping from Vesta's gravitational clutches in 2012, Dawn has kept the other two reaction wheels in reserve so any remaining lifetime from those devices could offset the high cost of hydrazine propellant to turn and point in this current tight orbit. Those two wheels have been on and functioning flawlessly since Dec. 14, 2015, and every day they operate, they keep the expenditure of the dwindling supply of hydrazine to half of what it would be without them. (Next month we will offer some estimates of how long Dawn might continue to operate.) But the ever-diligent team recognizes another wheel could falter at any moment, and they remain ready to continue the mission with pure hydrazine control after only a short recovery operation. If a third failure is at all like the two that have occurred already, the hapless wheel won't give an indication of a problem until it's too late. A reaction wheel failure evidently is entirely unpredictable. We'll know about it only after it occurs in the remote depths of space where Dawn resides at an alien world.
Earth and Ceres are so far from each other that their motions are essentially independent. The planet and the dwarf planet follow their own separate repetitive paths around the sun. And each carries its own retinue: Earth has thousands of artificial satellites and one prominent natural one, the moon. Ceres has one known satellite. It arrived there in March 2015, and its name is Dawn.
Coincidentally, both reached extremes earlier this month in their elliptical heliocentric orbits. Earth, in its annual journey around our star, was at perihelion, or the closest point to the sun, on Jan. 2, when it was 0.98 AU (91.4 million miles, or 147 million kilometers) away. Ceres, which takes 4.6 years (one Cerean year) for each loop, attained its aphelion, or greatest distance from the sun, on Jan. 6. On that day, it was 2.98 AU (277 million miles, or 445 million kilometers) from the gravitational master of the solar system.
Far, far from the planet where its deep-space voyage began, Dawn is now bound to Ceres, held in a firm but gentle gravitational embrace. The spacecraft continues to unveil new and fascinating secrets there for the benefit of all those who remain with Earth but who still look to the sky with wonder, who feel the lure of the unknown, who are thrilled by new knowledge, and who yearn to know the cosmos.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.87 AU (360 million miles, or 580 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,440 times as far as the moon and 3.93 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and four minutes to make the round trip.
Dawn is now performing the final act of its remarkable celestial choreography, held close in Ceres’ firm gravitational embrace. The distant explorer is developing humankind’s most intimate portrait ever of a dwarf planet, and it likely will be a long, long time before the level of detail is surpassed.
The spacecraft is concluding an outstandingly successful year 1,500 times nearer to Ceres than it began. More important, it is more than 1.4 million times closer to Ceres than Earth is today. From its uniquely favorable vantage point, Dawn can relay to us spectacular views that would otherwise be unattainable. At an average altitude of only 240 miles (385 kilometers), the spacecraft is closer to Ceres than the International Space Station is to Earth. From that tight orbit, the dwarf planet looks the same size as a soccer ball seen from only 3.5 inches (9.0 centimeters) away. This is in-your-face exploration.
The spacecraft has returned more than 16,000 pictures of Ceres this year (including more than 2,000 since descending to its low orbit this month). One of your correspondent’s favorites (below) was taken on Dec. 10 when Dawn was verifying the condition of its backup camera. Not only did the camera pass its tests, but it yielded a wonderful, dramatic view not far from the south pole. It is southern hemisphere winter on Ceres now, with the sun north of the equator. From the perspective of the photographed location, the sun is near the horizon, creating the long shadows that add depth and character to the scene. And usually in close-in orbits, we look nearly straight down. Unlike such overhead pictures typical of planetary spacecraft (including Dawn), this view is mostly forward and shows a richly detailed landscape ahead, one you can imagine being in — a real place, albeit an exotic one. This may be like the breathtaking panorama you could enjoy with your face pressed to the porthole of your spaceship as you are approaching your landing sight. You are right there. It looks — it feels! — so real and physical. You might actually plan a hike across some of the terrain. And it may be that a visiting explorer or even a colonist someday will have this same view before setting off on a trek through the Cerean countryside.
Of course, Dawn's objectives include much more than taking incredibly neat pictures, a task at which it excels. It is designed to collect scientifically meaningful photos and other valuable measurements. We'll see more below about what some of the images and spectra from higher altitudes have revealed about Ceres, but first let's take a look at the three highest priority investigations Dawn is conducting now in its final orbit, sometimes known as the low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). While the camera, visible mapping spectrometer and infrared mapping spectrometer show the surface, these other measurements probe beneath.
With the spacecraft this close to the ground, it can measure two kinds of nuclear radiation that come from as much as a yard (meter) deep. The radiation carries the signatures of the atoms there, allowing scientists to inventory some of the key chemical elements of geological interest. One component of this radiation is gamma ray photons, a high energy form of electromagnetic radiation with a frequency beyond visible light, beyond ultraviolet, even beyond X-rays. Neutrons in the radiation are entirely different from gamma rays. They are particles usually found in the nuclei of atoms (for those of you who happen to look there). Indeed, outweighing protons, and outnumbering them in most kinds of atoms, they constitute most of the mass of atoms other than hydrogen in Ceres (and everywhere else in the universe, including in your correspondent).
To tell us what members of the periodic table of the elements are present, Dawn's gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) does more than detect those two kinds of radiation. Despite its name, GRaND is not at all pretentious, but its capabilities are quite impressive. Consisting of 21 sensors, the device measures the energy of each gamma ray photon and of each neutron. (That doesn't lend itself to as engaging an acronym.) It is these gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra that reveal the identities of the atomic species in the ground.
Some of the gamma rays are produced by radioactive elements, but most of them and the neutrons are generated as byproducts of cosmic rays impinging on Ceres. Space is pervaded by cosmic radiation, composed of a variety of subatomic particles that originate outside our solar system. Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field protect the surface (and those who dwell there) from cosmic rays, but Ceres lacks such defenses. The cosmic rays interact with nuclei of atoms, and some of the gamma rays and neutrons that are released escape back into space where they are intercepted by GRaND on the orbiting Dawn.
Unlike the relatively bright light reflected from Ceres's surface that the camera, infrared spectrometer and visible spectrometer record, the radiation GRaND measures is very faint. Just as a picture of a dim object requires a longer exposure than for a bright subject, GRaND's "pictures" of Ceres require very long exposures, lasting weeks, but mission planners have provided Dawn with the necessary time. Because the equivalent of the illumination for the gamma ray and neutron pictures is cosmic rays, not sunlight, regions in darkness are no fainter than those illuminated by the sun. GRaND works on both the day side and the night side of Ceres.
In addition to the gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra, Dawn's other top priority now is measuring Ceres' gravity field. The results will help scientists infer the interior structure of the dwarf planet. The measurements made in the higher altitude orbits turned out to be even more accurate than the team had expected, but now that the probe is as close to Ceres as it will ever go, and so the gravitational pull is the strongest, they can obtain still better measurements.
Gravity is one of four fundamental forces in nature, and its extreme weakness is one of the fascinating mysteries of how the universe works. It feels strong to us (well, most of us) because we don't so easily sense the two kinds of nuclear forces, both of which extend only over extremely short distances, and we generally don't recognize the electromagnetic force. With both positive and negative electrical charges, attractive and repulsive electromagnetic forces often cancel. Not so with gravity. All matter exerts attractive gravity, and it can all add up. The reason gravity -- by far the weakest of the four forces -- is so salient for those of you on or near Earth is that there is such a vast amount of matter in the planet and it all pulls together to hold you down. Dawn overcame that pull with its powerful Delta rocket. Now the principal gravitational force acting on it is the cumulative effect of all the matter in Ceres, and that is what determines its orbital motion.
The spacecraft experiences a changing force both as the inhomogeneous dwarf planet beneath it rotates on its axis and as the craft circles that massive orb. When Dawn is closer to locations within Ceres with greater density (i.e., more matter), the ship feels a stronger tug, and when it is near regions with lower density, and hence less powerful gravity, the attraction is weaker. The spacecraft accelerates and decelerates very slightly as its orbit carries it closer to and farther from the volumes of different density. By carefully and systematically plotting the exquisitely small variations in the probe's motion, navigators can calculate how the mass is distributed inside Ceres, essentially creating an interior map. This technique allowed scientists to establish that Vesta, the protoplanet Dawn explored in 2011-2012, has a dense core (composed principally of iron and nickel) surrounded by a less dense mantle and crust. (That is one of the reasons scientists now consider Vesta to be more closely related to Earth and the other terrestrial planets than to typical asteroids.)
Mapping the orbit requires systems both on Dawn and on Earth. Using the large and exquisitely sensitive antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN), navigators measure tiny changes in the frequency, or pitch, of the spacecraft's radio signal, and that reveals changes in the craft's velocity. This technique relies on the Doppler effect, which is familiar to most terrestrial readers as they hear the pitch of a siren rise as it approaches and fall as it recedes. Other readers who more commonly travel at speeds closer to that of light recognize that the well-known blueshift and redshift are manifestations of the same principle, applied to light waves rather than sound waves. Even as Dawn orbits Ceres at 610 mph (980 kilometers per hour), engineers can detect changes in its speed of only one foot (0.3 meters) per hour, or one five-thousandth of a mph (one three-thousandth of a kilometer per hour). Another way to track the spacecraft is to measure the distance very accurately as it revolves around Ceres. The DSN times a radio signal that goes from Earth to Dawn and back. As you are reminded at the end of every Dawn Journal, those signals travel at the universal limit of the speed of light, which is known with exceptional accuracy. Combining the speed of light with the time allows the distance to be pinpointed. These measurements with Dawn's radio, along with other data, enable scientists to peer deep into the dwarf planet
Although it is not among the highest scientific priorities, the flight team is every bit as interested in the photography as you are. We are visual creatures, so photographs have a special appeal. They transport us to mysterious, faraway worlds more effectively than any propulsion system. Even as Dawn is bringing the alien surface into sharper focus now, the pictures taken in higher orbits have allowed scientists to gain new insights into this ancient world. Geologists have located more than 130 bright regions, none being more striking than the mesmerizing luster in Occator crater. The pictures taken in visible and infrared wavelengths have helped them determine that the highly reflective material is a kind of salt.
It is very difficult to pin down the specific composition with the measurements that have been analyzed so far. Scientists compare how reflective the scene is at different wavelengths with the reflective properties of likely candidate materials studied in laboratories. So far, magnesium sulfate yields the best match (although it is not definitive). That isn't the type of salt you normally put on your food (or if it is, I'll be wary about accepting the kind invitation to dine in your home), but it is very similar (albeit not identical) to Epsom salts, which have many other familiar uses.
Scientists' best explanation now for the deposits of salt is that when asteroids crash into Ceres, they excavate underground briny water-ice. Once on the surface and exposed to the vacuum of space, even in the freezing cold so far from the sun, the ice sublimes, the water molecules going directly from the solid ice to gas without an intermediate liquid stage. Left behind are the materials that had been dissolved in the water. The size and brightness of the different regions depend in part on how long ago the impact occurred. A very preliminary estimate is that Occator was formed by a powerful collision around 80 million years ago, which is relatively recent in geological times. (We will see in a future Dawn Journal how scientists estimate the age and why the pictures in this low altitude mapping orbit will help refine the value.)
As soon as Dawn's pictures of Ceres arrived early this year, many people referred to the bright regions as "white spots," although as we opined then, such a description was premature. The black and white pictures revealed nothing about the color, only the brightness. Now we know that most have a very slight blue tint. For reasons not yet clear, the central bright area of Occator is tinged with more red. Nevertheless, the coloration is subtle, and our eyes would register white.
Measurements with both finer wavelength discrimination and broader wavelength coverage in the infrared have revealed still more about the nature of Ceres. Scientists using data from one of the two spectrometers in the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer instrument (VIR) have found that a class of minerals known as phyllosilicates is common on Ceres. As with the magnesium sulfate, the identification is made by comparing Dawn's detailed spectral measurements with laboratory spectra of a great many different kinds of minerals. This technique is a mainstay of astronomy (with both spacecraft and telescopic observations) and has a solid foundation of research that dates to the nineteenth century, but given the tremendous variety of minerals that occur in nature, the results generally are neither absolutely conclusive nor extremely specific.
There are dozens of phyllosilicates on Earth (one well known group is mica). Ceres too likely contains a mixture of at least several. Other compounds are evident as well, but what is most striking is the signature of ammonia in the minerals. This chemical is manufactured extensively on Earth, but few industries have invested in production plants so far from their home offices. (Any corporations considering establishing Cerean chemical plants are invited to contact the Dawn project. Perhaps, however, mining would be a more appropriate first step in a long-term business plan.)
Ammonia's presence on Ceres is important. This simple molecule would have been common in the material swirling around the young sun almost 4.6 billion years ago when planets were forming. (Last year we discussed this period at the dawn of the solar system.) But at Ceres' present distance from the sun, it would have been too warm for ammonia to be caught up in the planet-forming process, just as it was even closer to the sun where Earth resides. There are at least two possible explanations for how Ceres acquired its large inventory of ammonia. One is that it formed much farther from the sun, perhaps even beyond Neptune, where conditions were cool enough for ammonia to condense. In that case, it could easily have incorporated ammonia. Subsequent gravitational jostling among the new residents of the solar system could have propelled Ceres into its present orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Another possibility is that Ceres formed closer to where it is now but that debris containing ammonia from the outer solar system drifted inward and some of it ultimately fell onto the dwarf planet. If enough made its way to Ceres, the ground would be covered with the chemical, just as VIR observed.
Scientists continue to analyze the thousands of photos and millions of infrared and visible spectra even as Dawn is now collecting more precious data. Next month, we will summarize the intricate plan that apportions time among pointing the spacecraft's sensors at Ceres to perform measurements, its main antenna at Earth to transmit its findings and receive new instructions and its ion engine in the direction needed to adjust its orbit.
The plans described last month for getting started in this fourth and final mapping orbit worked out extremely well. You can follow Dawn's activities with the status reports posted at least twice a week here. And you can see new pictures regularly in the Ceres image gallery.
We will be treated to many more marvelous sights on Ceres now that Dawn's pictures will display four times the detail of the views from its third mapping orbit. The mapping orbits are summarized in the following table, updated from what we have presented before. (This fourth orbit is listed here as beginning on Dec. 16. In fact, the highest priority work, which is obtaining the gamma ray spectra, neutron spectra and gravity measurements, began on Dec. 7, as explained last month. But Dec. 16 is when the spacecraft started its bonus campaign of measuring infrared spectra and taking pictures. Recognizing that what most readers care about is the photography, regardless of the scientific priorities, that is the date we use here.
|Mapping orbit||Dawn code name||Dates||Altitude in miles (kilometers)||Resolution in feet (meters) per pixel||Resolution compared to Hubble||Orbit period||Equivalent distance of a soccer ball|
|1||RC3||April 23 - May 9||8,400 (13,600)||4,200 (1,300)||24||15 days||10 feet (3.2 meters)|
|2||Survey||June 6-30||2,700 (4,400)||1,400 (410)||73||3.1 days||3.4 feet (1.0 meters)|
|3||HAMO||Aug 17 - Oct 23||915 (1,470)||450 (140)||217||19 hours||14 inches (34 cm)|
|4||LAMO||Dec 16 - end of mission||240 (385)||120 (35)||830||5.4 hours||3.5 inches (9.0 cm)|
Dawn is now well-positioned to make many more discoveries on the first dwarf planet discovered. Jan. 1 will be the 215th anniversary of Giuseppe Piazzi's first glimpse of that dot of light from his observatory in Sicily. Even to that experienced astronomer, Ceres looked like nothing other than a star, except that it moved a little bit from night to night like a planet, whereas the stars were stationary. (For more than a generation after, it was called a planet.) He could not imagine that more than two centuries later, humankind would dispatch a machine on a cosmic journey of more than seven years and three billion miles (five billion kilometers) to reach the distant, uncharted world he descried. Dawn can resolve details more than 60 thousand times finer than Piazzi's telescope would allow. Our knowledge, our capabilities, our reach and even our ambition all are far beyond what he could have conceived, and yet we can apply them to his discovery to learn more, not only about Ceres itself, but also about the dawn of the solar system.
On a personal note, I first saw Ceres through a telescope even smaller than Piazzi's when I was 12 years old. As a much less experienced observer of the stars than he was, and with the benefit of nearly two centuries of astronomical studies between us, I was thrilled! I knew that what I was seeing was the behemoth of the main asteroid belt. But it never occurred to me when I was only a starry-eyed youth that I would be lucky enough to follow up on Piazzi's discovery as a starry-eyed adult, responsible for humankind's first visitor to that fascinating alien world, answering a celestial invitation that was more than 200 years old.
Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.66 AU (340 million miles, or 547 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,360 times as far as the moon and 3.72 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take one hour and one minute to make the round trip.
Dear Superintendawnts and Assisdawnts,
An intrepid interplanetary explorer is now powering its way down through the gravity field of a distant alien world. Soaring on a blue-green beam of high-velocity xenon ions, Dawn is making excellent progress as it spirals closer and closer to Ceres, the first dwarf planet discovered. Meanwhile, scientists are progressing and analyzing the tremendous volume of pictures and other data the probe has already sent to Earth.
Dawn is flying down to an average altitude of about 240 miles (385 kilometers), where it will conduct wide-ranging investigations with its suite of scientific instruments. The spacecraft will be even closer to the rocky, icy ground than the International Space Station is to Earth's surface. The pictures will be four times sharper than the best it has yet taken. The view is going to be fabulous!
Dawn will be so near the dwarf planet that its sensors will detect only a small fraction of the vast territory at a time. Mission planners have designed the complex itinerary so that every three weeks, Dawn will fly over most of the terrain while on the sunlit side. (The neutron spectrometer, gamma ray spectrometer and gravity measurements do not depend on illumination from the sun, but the camera, infrared mapping spectrometer and visible mapping spectrometer do.)
Obtaining the planned coverage of the exotic landscapes requires a delicate synchrony between Ceres' and Dawn's movements. Ceres rotates on its axis every nine hours and four minutes (one Cerean day). Dawn will revolve around it in a little less than five and a half hours, traveling from the north pole to the south pole over the hemisphere facing the sun and sailing northward over the hemisphere hidden in the darkness of night. Orbital velocity at this altitude is around 610 mph (980 kilometers per hour).
The planned altitude differs from the earlier, tentative value of 230 miles (375 kilometers) for several reasons. One is that the previous notion for the altitude was based on theoretical models of Ceres’ gravity field. Navigators measured the field quite accurately in the previous mapping orbit (using the method outlined here), and that has allowed them to refine the orbital parameters to choreograph Dawn’s celestial pas de deux with Ceres. In addition, prior to Dawn’s investigations, Ceres’ topography was a complete mystery. Hubble Space Telescope had shown the overall shape well enough to allow scientists to determine that Ceres qualifies as a dwarf planet, but the landforms were indiscernible and the range of relative elevations was simply unknown. Now that Dawn has mapped the topography, we can specify the spacecraft’s average height above the ground as it orbits. With continuing analyses of the thousands of stereo pictures taken in August – October and more measurements of the gravity field in the final orbit, we will further refine the average altitude. Finally, we round the altitude numbers to the nearest multiple of five (both for miles and kilometers), because, as we will discuss in a subsequent Dawn Journal, the actual orbit will vary in altitude by much more than that. (We described some of the ups and dawns of the corresponding orbit at Vesta here. The variations at Ceres will not be as large, but the principles are the same.)
To attain its new orbit, Dawn relies on its trusty and uniquely efficient ion engine, which has already allowed the spacecraft to accomplish what no other has even attempted in the 58-year history of space exploration. This is the only mission ever to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations. The spaceship orbited the protoplanet Vesta for 14 months in 2011-2012, revealing myriad fascinating details of the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, before its March 2015 arrival in orbit around the most massive. Ion propulsion enables Dawn to undertake a mission that would be impossible without it.
While the ion engine provides 10 times the efficiency of conventional spacecraft propulsion, the engine expends the merest whisper of xenon propellant, delivering a remarkably gentle thrust. As a result, Dawn achieves acceleration with patience, and that patience is rewarded with the capability to explore two of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system. This raises an obvious question: How cool is that? Fortunately, the answer is equally obvious: Incredibly cool!
The efficiency of the ion engine enables Dawn not only to orbit two destinations but also to maneuver extensively around each one, optimizing its orbits to reap the richest possible scientific return at Vesta and Ceres. The gentleness of the ion engine makes the maneuvers gradual and graceful. The spiral descents are an excellent illustration of that.
Dawn began its elegant downward coils on Oct. 23 upon concluding more than two months of intensive observations of Ceres from an altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers). At that height, Ceres' gravitational hold was not as firm as it will be in Dawn's lower orbit, so orbital velocity was slower. Circling at 400 mph (645 kilometers per hour), it took 19 hours to complete one revolution around Ceres. It will take Dawn more than six weeks to travel from that orbit to its new one. (You can track its progress and continue to follow its activities once it reaches its final orbit with the frequent mission status updates.)
On Nov. 16, at an altitude of about 450 miles (720 kilometers), Dawn circled at the same rate that Ceres turned. Now the spacecraft is looping around its home even faster than the world beneath it turns.
When ion-thrusting ends on Dec. 7, navigators will measure and analyze the orbital parameters to establish how close they are to the targeted values and whether a final adjustment is needed to fit with the intricate observing strategy. Several phenomena contribute to small differences between the planned orbit and the actual orbit. (See here and here for two of our attempts to elucidate this topic.) Engineers have already thoroughly assessed the full range of credible possibilities using sophisticated mathematical methods. This is a complex and challenging process, but the experienced team is well prepared. In case Dawn needs to execute an additional maneuver to bring its orbital motion into closer alignment with the plan, the schedule includes a window for more ion-thrusting on Dec. 11-13 (concluding on Dawn's 2,999th day in space). In the parlance of spaceflight, this maneuver to adjust the orbit is a trajectory correction maneuver (TCM), and Dawn has experience with them.
The operations team takes advantage of every precious moment at Ceres they can, so while they are determining whether to perform the TCM and then developing the final flight plan to implement it, they will ensure the spacecraft continues to work productively. Dawn carries two identical cameras, a primary and a backup. Engineers occasionally operate the backup camera to verify that it remains healthy and ready to be put into service should the primary camera falter. On Dec. 10, the backup will execute a set of tests, and Dawn will transmit the results to Earth on Dec. 11. By then, the work on the TCM will be complete.
Although it is likely a TCM will be needed, if it turns out to be unnecessary, mission control has other plans for the spacecraft. In this final orbit, Dawn will resume using its reaction wheels to control its orientation. By electrically changing the speed at which these gyroscope-like devices rotate, the probe can control its orientation, stabilizing itself or turning. We have discussed their lamentable history on Dawn extensively, with two of the four having failed. Although such losses could have been ruinous, the flight team formulated and implemented very clever strategies to complete the mission without the wheels. Exceeding their own expectations in such a serious situation, Dawn is accomplishing even more observations at Ceres than had been planned when it was being built or when it embarked on its ambitious interplanetary journey in 2007.
Now the mission lifetime is limited by the small supply of conventional rocket propellant, expelled from reaction control system thrusters strategically located around the spacecraft. When that precious hydrazine is exhausted, the robot will no longer be able to point its solar arrays at the sun, its antenna at Earth, its sensors at Ceres or its ion engines in the direction needed to travel elsewhere, so the mission will conclude. The lower Dawn's orbital altitude, the faster it uses hydrazine, because it must rotate more quickly to keep its sensors pointed at the ground. In addition, it has to fight harder to resist Ceres' relentless gravitational tug on the very large solar arrays, creating an unwanted torque on the ship.
Among the innovative solutions to the reaction wheel problems was the development of a new method of orienting the spacecraft with a combination of only two wheels plus hydrazine. In the final orbit, this "hybrid control" will use hydrazine at only half the rate that would be needed without the wheels. Therefore, mission controllers have been preserving the units for this final phase of the expedition, devoting the limited remaining usable life to the time that they can provide the greatest benefit in saving hydrazine. (The accuracy with which Dawn can aim its sensors is essentially unaffected by which control mode is used, so hydrazine conservation is the dominant consideration in when to use the wheels.) Apart from a successful test of hybrid control two years ago and three subsequent periods of a few hours each for biannual operation to redistribute internal lubricants, the two operable wheels have been off since August 2012, when Dawn was climbing away from Vesta on its way out of orbit.
Controllers plan to reactivate the wheels on Dec. 14. However, in the unlikely case that the TCM is deemed unnecessary, they will power the wheels on on Dec. 11. The reaction wheels will remain in use for as long as both function correctly. If either one fails, which could happen immediately or might not happen before the hydrazine is depleted next year, it and the other will be powered off, and the mission will continue, relying exclusively on hydrazine control.
Dawn will measure the energies and numbers of neutrons and gamma rays emanating from Ceres as soon as it arrives in its new orbit. With a month or so of these measurements, scientists will be able to determine the abundances of some of the elements that compose the material near the surface. Engineers and scientists also will collect new data on the gravity field at this low altitude right away, so they eventually can build up a profile of the dwarf planet's interior structure. The other instruments (including the camera) have narrower fields of view and are more sensitive to small discrepancies in where they are aimed. It will take a few more days to incorporate the actual measured orbital parameters into the corresponding plans that controllers will radio to the spacecraft. Those observations are scheduled to begin on Dec. 18. But always squeezing as much as possible out of the mission, the flight team might actually begin some photography and infrared spectroscopy as early as Dec. 16.
Now closing in on its final orbit, the veteran space traveler soon will commence the last phase of its long and fruitful adventure, when it will provide the best views yet of Ceres. Known for more than two centuries as little more than a speck of light in the vast and beautiful expanse of the stars, the spacecraft has already transformed it into a richly detailed and fascinating world. Now Dawn is on the verge of revealing even more of Ceres' secrets, answering more questions and, as is the marvelous nature of science and exploration, raising new ones.
Dawn is 295 miles (470 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.33 AU (309 million miles, or 498 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,270 times as far as the moon and 3.37 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 55 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
5:00 p.m. PST, November 30, 2015
Dear Exuldawnt Readers,
Dawn has completed another outstandingly successful campaign to acquire a wealth of pictures and other data in its exploration of dwarf planet Ceres. Exultant residents of distant Earth now have the clearest and most complete view ever of this former planet.
The stalwart probe spent more than two months orbiting 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) above the alien world. We described the plans for this third major phase of Dawn's investigation (also known as the high altitude mapping orbit, or HAMO) in August and provided a brief progress report in September. Now we can look back on its extremely productive work.
Each revolution, flying over the north pole to the south pole and back to the north, took Dawn 19 hours. Mission planners carefully chose the orbital parameters to coordinate the spacecraft's travels with the nine-hour rotation period of Ceres (one Cerean day) and with the field of view of the camera so that in 12 orbits over the lit hemisphere (one mapping "cycle"), Dawn could photograph all of the terrain.
In each of six mapping cycles, the robot held its camera and its infrared and visible mapping spectrometers at a different angle. For the first cycle (Aug. 17-26), Dawn looked straight down. For the second, it looked a little bit behind and to the left as it completed another dozen orbits. For the third map, it pointed the sensors a little behind and to the right. In its fourth cycle, it aimed ahead and to the left. When it made its fifth map, it peered immediately ahead, and for the sixth and final cycle (Oct. 12-21) it viewed terrain farther back than in the third cycle but not as far to the right.
The result of this extensive mapping is a very rich collection of photos of the fascinating scenery on a distant world. Think for a moment of the pictures not so much from the standpoint of the spacecraft but rather from a location on the ground. With the different perspectives in each mapping cycle, that location has been photographed from several different angles, providing stereo views. Scientists will use these pictures to make the landscape pop into its full three dimensionality.
Dawn's reward for these two months of hard work is much more than revealing Ceres' detailed topography, valuable though that is. During the first and fifth mapping cycles, it used the seven color filters in the camera, providing extensive coverage in visible and infrared wavelengths.
In addition to taking more than 6,700 pictures, the spacecraft operated its visible and infrared mapping spectrometers to acquire in excess of 12.5 million spectra. Each spectrum contains much finer measurements of the colors and a wider range of wavelengths than the camera. In exchange, the camera has sharper vision and so can discern smaller geological features. As the nerdier among us would say, the spectrometers achieve better spectral resolution and the camera achieves better spatial resolution. Fortunately, it is not a competition, because Dawn has both, and the instruments yield complementary measurements.
Even as scientists are methodically analyzing the vast trove of data, turning it into knowledge, you can go to the Ceres image gallery to see some of Dawn's pictures, exhibiting a great variety of terrain, smooth or rugged, strangely bright or dark, unique in the solar system or reminiscent of elsewhere spacecraft have traveled, and always intriguing.
Among the questions scientists are grappling with is what the nature of the bright regions is. There are many places on Ceres that display strikingly reflective material but nowhere as prominently as in Occator crater. Even as Dawn approached Ceres, the mysterious reflections shone out far into space, mesmerizing and irresistible, as if to guide or even seduce a passing ship into going closer. Our intrepid interplanetary adventurer, compelled not by this cosmic invitation but rather by humankind's still more powerful yearning for new knowledge and new insights, did indeed venture in. Now it has acquired excellent pictures and beautiful spectra that will help determine the composition and perhaps even how the bright areas came to be. Thanks to the extraordinary power of the scientific method, we can look forward to explanations. (And while you wait, you can register your vote here for what the answer will be.)
Scientists also puzzle over the number and distribution of craters. We mentioned in December the possibility that ice being mixed in as a major component on or near the surface would cause the material to flow, albeit very slowly on the scale of a human lifetime. But over longer times, the glacially slow movement might prove significant. Most of Ceres' craters are excavated by impacts from some of the many bodies that roam that part of the solar system. Ceres lives in a rough neighborhood, and being the most massive body between Mars and Jupiter does not give it immunity to assaults. Indeed, its gravity makes it even more susceptible, attracting passersby. But once a crater is formed, the scar might be expected to heal as the misshapen ground gradually recovers. In some ways this is similar to when you remove pressure from your skin. What may be a deep impression relaxes, and after a while, the original mark (or, one may hope, Marc) is gone. But Ceres has more craters than some scientists had anticipated, especially at low latitudes where sunlight provides a faint warming. Apparently the expectation of the gradual disappearance of craters was not quite right. Is there less evidence of flowing ground material because the temperature is lower than predicted (causing the flow to be even slower), because the composition is not quite what was assumed, or because of other reasons? Moreover, craters are not distributed as would be expected for random pummeling; some regions display significantly more craters than others. Investigating this heterogeneity may give further insight into the geological processes that have taken place and are occurring now on this dwarf planet.
Dawn's bounty from this third major science campaign includes even more than stereo and color pictures plus visible and infrared spectra. Precise tracking of the spacecraft as it moves in response to Ceres' gravitational pull allows scientists to calculate the arrangement of mass in the behemoth. Performing such measurements will be among the top three priorities for the lowest altitude orbit, when Dawn experiences the strongest buffeting from the gravitational currents, but already the structure of the gravitational field is starting to be evident. We will see next month how this led to a small change in the choice of the altitude for this next orbit, which will be less than 235 miles (380 kilometers).
The other top two priorities for the final mission phase are the measurement of neutron spectra and the measurement of gamma ray spectra, both of which will help in establishing what species of atoms are present on and near the surface. The weak radiation from Ceres is difficult to measure from the altitudes at which Dawn has been operating so far. The gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) has been in use since March 12 (shortly after Dawn arrived in orbit), but that has been to prepare for the low orbit. Nevertheless, the sophisticated instrument did detect the dwarf planet's faint nuclear emissions even in this third orbital phase. The signal was not strong enough to allow any conclusions about the elemental composition, but it is interesting to begin seeing the radiation which will help uncover more of Ceres' secrets when Dawn is closer.
To scientists' great delight, one of GRaND's sensors even found an entirely unexpected signature of Ceres in Dawn's second mapping orbit, where the spacecraft revolved every 3.1 days at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). In a nice example of scientific serendipity, it detected high energy electrons in the same region of space above Ceres on three consecutive orbits. Electrons and other subatomic particles stream outward from the sun in what is called the solar wind, and researchers understand how planets with magnetic fields can accelerate them to higher energy. Earth is an example of a planet with a magnetic field, but Ceres is thought not to be. So scientists now have the unanticipated joy not only of establishing the physical mechanism responsible for this discovery but also determining what it reveals about this dwarf planet.
Several times during each of the six mapping cycles, Dawn expended a few grams of its precious hydrazine propellant to rotate so it could aim its main antenna at Earth. While the craft soared high above ground cloaked in the deep black of night, it transmitted some of its findings to NASA's Deep Space Network. But Dawn conducted so many observations that during half an orbit, or about 9.5 hours, it could not radio enough data to empty its memory. By the end of each mapping cycle, the probe had accumulated so much data that it fixed its antenna on Earth for about two days, or 2.5 revolutions, to send its detailed reports on Ceres to eager Earthlings.
Following the conclusion of the final mapping cycle, after transmitting the last of the information it had stored in its computer, the robotic explorer did not waste any time gloating over its accomplishments. There was still a great deal more work to do. On Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m., it fired up ion engine #2 (the same one it used to descend from the second mapping orbit to the third) to begin more than seven weeks of spiraling down to its fourth orbit. (You can follow its progress here and on Twitter @NASA_Dawn.) Dawn has accomplished more than 5.4 years of ion thrusting since it left Earth, and the complex descent to less than 235 miles (380 kilometers) is the final thrusting campaign of the entire extraterrestrial expedition. (The ion propulsion system will be used occasionally to make small adjustments to the final orbit.)
The blue lights in Dawn mission control that indicate the spacecraft is thrusting had been off since Aug. 13. Now they are on again, serving as a constant (and cool) reminder that the ambitious mission is continuing to power its way to new (and cool) destinations.
Dawn is 740 miles (1,190 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.91 AU (271 million miles, or 436 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,165 times as far as the moon and 2.93 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 48 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
3:00 p.m. PDT October 30, 2015
P.S. While the spacecraft is hard at work continuing its descent tomorrow, your correspondent will be hard at work dispensing treats to budding (but cute) extortionists at his front door. But zany and playful as ever, he will expand his delightful costume from last year by adding eight parts dark energy. Trick or treat!