Dear All Hallows' Dawns,
Deep in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn is continuing its smooth, silent flight toward dwarf planet Ceres. Far behind it now is the giant protoplanet Vesta, which the spacecraft transformed from a tiny splotch in the night sky to an exotic and richly detailed world.
The voyage from Vesta to Ceres will take the pertinacious probe 2.5 years. The great majority of spacecraft coast most of the time (just as planets and moons do), each one following a trajectory determined principally by whatever momentum they started with (usually following release from a rocket) and the gravitational fields of the sun and other nearby, massive bodies. In contrast, Dawn spends most of its time thrusting with its ion propulsion system. The gentle but efficient push from the high velocity xenon ions gradually reshapes its orbit around the sun. In September 2012, as it departed Vesta after 14 months of scrutinizing the second most massive resident of the asteroid belt, Dawn's heliocentric orbit was the same as the rocky behemoth's. Now they are very far apart, and by early 2015, the robotic explorer's path will be close enough to Ceres's that they will become locked in a gravitational embrace.
Without ion propulsion, Dawn's unique mission to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations would be impossible. No other spacecraft has attempted such a feat. To accomplish its interplanetary journey, the spaceship has thrust more than 96 percent of the time since propelling itself away from Vesta last year. Whenever it points its ion engine in the direction needed to rendezvous with Ceres, its main antenna cannot also be aimed at Earth. Dawn functions very well on its own, however, communicating only occasionally with its terrestrial colleagues. Once every four weeks, it interrupts thrusting to rotate so it can use its 5-foot (1.52-meter) antenna to establish contact with NASA's Deep Space Network, receiving new instructions from the Dawn operations team at JPL and transmitting a comprehensive report on all its subsystems. Then it turns back to the orientation needed for thrusting and resumes its powered flight.
During its years of interplanetary travel, Dawn has reliably followed a carefully formulated flight plan from Earth past Mars to Vesta and now from Vesta to Ceres. We discussed some of the principles underlying the development of the complex itinerary in a log written when Dawn was still gravitationally anchored to Earth. To carry out its ambitious adventure, Dawn should thrust most of the time, but not all of the time. Indeed, at some times, thrusting would be unproductive.
We will not delve into the details here, but remember that Dawn is doing more than ascending the solar system hill, climbing away from the sun. More challenging than that is making its orbit match the orbit of its targets so that it does not fly past them for a brief encounter as some other missions do. Performing its intricate interplanetary choreography requires exquisite timing with the grace and delicacy of the subtly powerful ion propulsion.
Of course Dawn does not thrust much of the time it is in orbit at Vesta and Ceres; rather, its focus there is on acquiring the precious pictures and other measurements that reveal the detailed nature of these mysterious protoplanets. But even during the interplanetary flight, there are two periods in the mission in which it is preferable to coast. Sophisticated analysis is required to compute the thrusting direction and schedule, based on factors ranging from the physical characteristics of the solar system (e.g., the mass of the sun and the masses and orbits of Earth, Mars, Vesta, Ceres and myriad other bodies that tug, even weakly, on Dawn) to the capabilities of the spacecraft (e.g., electrical power available to the ion thrusters) to constraints on when mission planners will not allow thrusting (e.g., during spacecraft maintenance periods).
The first interval that interplanetary trajectory designers designated as "optimal coast" was well over four years and 1.8 billion miles (2.8 billion kilometers) ago. Dawn coasted from October 31, 2008, to June 8, 2009. During that time, the ship took some of Mars's orbital energy to help propel itself toward Vesta. (In exchange for boosting Dawn, Mars slowed down by an amount equivalent to about 1 inch, or 2.5 centimeters, in 180 million years.)
The second and final interval when coasting is better than thrusting begins next month. From Nov. 11 to Dec. 9, Dawn will glide along in its orbit around the sun without modifying it. The timing of this coast period is nearly as important to keeping the appointment with Ceres as is the timing of the thrusting. In next month's log, we will describe some of the special assignments the sophisticated robot will perform instead of its usual quiet cruise routine of accelerating and emitting xenon ions. We also will look ahead to some interesting celestial milestones and alignments in December.
While the spacecraft courses through the asteroid belt, the flight team continues refining the plans for Ceres. In logs in December and several months in 2014, we will present extensive details of those plans so that by the time Dawn begins its mission there, you will be ready to ride along and share in the experience.
In the meantime, as the stalwart ship sails on, it is propelled not only by ions but also by the promise of exciting new knowledge and the prospects of a thrilling new adventure in exploring an uncharted alien world.
Dawn is 16 million miles (26 million kilometers) from Vesta and 25 million miles (39 million kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 3.07 AU (286 million miles, or 460 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,200 times as far as the moon and 3.10 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 51 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PDT October 31, 2013
P.S. This log is posted early enough to allow time for your correspondent to don his Halloween costume. In contrast to last year's simple (yet outlandish) costume, this year's will be more complex. He is going in double costume, disguised as someone who is only pretending to be passionate about the exploration of the cosmos and the rewards of scientific insight.
On the sixth anniversary of leaving Earth to embark on a daring deep-space expedition, Dawn is very, very far from its erstwhile planetary residence. Now humankind's only permanent resident of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the seasoned explorer is making good progress toward the largest object in that part of the solar system, the mysterious dwarf planet Ceres. The voyage is long, and the intrepid but patient traveler will not reach its next destination until half a year after its seventh anniversary of departing Earth.
On its fifth anniversary, Dawn was still relatively close to Vesta, the giant protoplanet that had so recently held the craft in its gravitational grip. The only probe ever to orbit a main belt asteroid, Dawn spent 14 months (including its fourth anniversary) accompanying Vesta on its way around the sun. After more than two centuries of appearing to astronomers as little more than a fuzzy blob of light among the stars, the second most massive body in the asteroid belt has been revealed as a fascinating, complex, alien world more closely related to terrestrial planets (including Earth) than to typical asteroids.
Most of the ship's first four years of spaceflight were devoted to using its ion propulsion system to spiral away from the sun, ascending the solar system hill from Earth to Vesta. Now it is working to climb still higher up that hill to Ceres.
For those who would like to track the probe's progress in the same terms used on previous (and, we boldly predict, subsequent) anniversaries, we present here the sixth annual summary, reusing the text from last year with updates where appropriate. Readers who wish to cogitate about the extraordinary nature of this deep-space expedition may find it helpful to compare this material with the logs from its first, second, third, fourth, and fifth anniversaries.
In its six years of interplanetary travels, the spacecraft has thrust for a total of 1,410 days, or 64 percent of the time (and about 0.000000028 percent of the time since the Big Bang). While for most spacecraft, firing a thruster to change course is a special event, it is Dawn's wont. All this thrusting has cost the craft only 318 kilograms (701 pounds) of its supply of xenon propellant, which was 425 kilograms (937 pounds) on September 27, 2007.
The thrusting so far in the mission has achieved the equivalent of accelerating the probe by 8.7 kilometers per second (19,500 mph). As previous logs have described (see here for one of the more extensive discussions), because of the principles of motion for orbital flight, whether around the sun or any other gravitating body, Dawn is not actually traveling this much faster than when it launched. But the effective change in speed remains a useful measure of the effect of any spacecraft's propulsive work. Having accomplished about three-quarters of the thrust time planned for its entire mission, Dawn has already far exceeded the velocity change achieved by any other spacecraft under its own power. (For a comparison with probes that enter orbit around Mars, refer to this earlier log.)
Since launch, our readers who have remained on or near Earth have completed six revolutions around the sun, covering about 37.7 AU (5.6 billion kilometers or 3.5 billion miles). Orbiting farther from the sun, and thus moving at a more leisurely pace, Dawn has traveled 27.4 AU (4.1 billion kilometers or 2.5 billion miles). As it climbed away from the sun to match its orbit to that of Vesta, it continued to slow down to Vesta's speed. It will have to slow down still more to rendezvous with Ceres. Since Dawn's launch, Vesta has traveled only 24.2 AU (3.6 billion kilometers or 2.2 billion miles), and the even more sedate Ceres has gone 22.8 AU (3.4 billion kilometers or 2.1 billion miles).
Another way to investigate the progress of the mission is to chart how Dawn’s orbit around the sun has changed. This discussion will culminate with a few more numbers than we usually include, and readers who prefer not to indulge may skip this material, leaving that much more for the grateful Numerivores. In order to make the table below comprehensible (and to fulfill our commitment of environmental responsibility), we recycle some more text here on the nature of orbits.
Orbits are ellipses (like flattened circles, or ovals in which the ends are of equal size). So as members of the solar system family follow their paths around the sun, they sometimes move closer and sometimes move farther from it.
In addition to orbits being characterized by shape, or equivalently by the amount of flattening (that is, the deviation from being a perfect circle), and by size, they may be described in part by how they are oriented in space. Using the bias of terrestrial astronomers, the plane of Earth's orbit around the sun (known as the ecliptic) is a good reference. Other planets and interplanetary spacecraft may travel in orbits that are tipped at some angle to that. The angle between the ecliptic and the plane of another body's orbit around the sun is the inclination of that orbit. Vesta and Ceres do not orbit the sun in the same plane that Earth does, and Dawn must match its orbit to that of its targets. (The major planets orbit closer to the ecliptic, and part of the arduousness of the journey is changing the inclination of its orbit, an energetically expensive task.)
Now we can see how Dawn has been doing by considering the size and shape (together expressed by the minimum and maximum distances from the sun) and inclination of its orbit on each of its anniversaries. (Experts readily recognize that there is more to describing an orbit than these parameters. Our policy remains that we link to the experts' websites when their readership extends to one more elliptical galaxy than ours does.)
The table below shows what the orbit would have been if the spacecraft had terminated thrusting on its anniversaries; the orbits of its destinations, Vesta and Ceres, are included for comparison. Of course, when Dawn was on the launch pad on September 27, 2007, its orbit around the sun was exactly Earth's orbit. After launch, it was in its own solar orbit.
|Minimum distance from the Sun (AU)||Maximum distance from the Sun (AU)||Inclination|
|Dawn's orbit on Sept. 27, 2007 (before launch)||0.98||1.02||0.0°|
|Dawn's orbit on Sept. 27, 2007 (after launch)||1.00||1.62||0.6°|
|Dawn's orbit on Sept. 27, 2008||1.21||1.68||1.4°|
|Dawn's orbit on Sept. 27, 2009||1.42||1.87||6.2°|
|Dawn's orbit on Sept. 27, 2010||1.89||2.13||6.8°|
|Dawn's orbit on Sept. 27, 2011||2.15||2.57||7.1°|
|Dawn's orbit on Sept. 27, 2012||2.17||2.57||7.3°|
|Dawn's orbit on Sept. 27, 2013||2.44||2.98||8.7°|
For readers who are not overwhelmed by the number of numbers, investing the effort in studying the table may help to demonstrate how Dawn has patiently transformed its orbit during the course of its mission. Note that two years ago, the spacecraft's path around the sun was exactly the same as Vesta's. Achieving that perfect match was, of course, the objective of the long flight that started in the same solar orbit as Earth, and that is how Dawn managed to slip into orbit around Vesta. While simply flying by it would have been far easier, matching orbits with Vesta required the extraordinary capability of the ion propulsion system. Without that technology, NASA's Discovery Program would not have been able to afford a mission to explore it in such detail. But now, Dawn has gone even beyond that. Having discovered so many of Vesta's secrets, the stalwart adventurer left the protoplanet behind. No other spacecraft has ever escaped from orbit around one distant solar system object to travel to and orbit still another extraterrestrial destination. A true interplanetary spaceship, Dawn is enlarging, reshaping and tilting its orbit again so that in 2015, it will be identical to Ceres's. A mission to both Vesta and Ceres would have been impossible without ion propulsion.
One way to chart Dawn's progress is with numbers. Another is to look inside ourselves and feel the awe at an extraordinary enterprise undertaken on our behalf. This robotic emissary from Earth to the cosmos has journeyed far, swooping by Mars even as its sights were set on distant, uncharted lands beyond. Powering its way through the solar system with a blue-green beam of xenon ions, the ambitious explorer is introducing humankind to ancient worlds, giant remnants from the dawn of the solar system. With each passing year, we travel farther and see more thanks to Dawn. It is amazing that creatures humble yet bold, who are physically confined to the vicinity of their planet, not only take on such daunting challenges but actually succeed in reaching so far and attaining so much. As Dawn begins the seventh year of its interplanetary odyssey, we can marvel at all that it has accomplished so far and look forward with eager anticipation to more rewards that lie ahead: new knowledge, new insights, new perspectives, and new fuel for those who feel the burning passion to venture still farther.
Dawn is 23 million kilometers (14 million miles) from Vesta and 44 million kilometers (27 million miles) from Ceres. It is also 3.32 AU (496 million kilometers or 308 million miles) from Earth, or 1,230 times as far as the moon and 3.31 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
4:34 a.m. PDT September 27, 2013
Because the data return rate from Mariner 4 was very low, the Mariner 4 Television Experiment Team spent hours waiting for each new image to appear. In this photo they are waiting for the first picture from Mars. Mariner eventually returned 22 images. From left to right: Robert Nathan (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Bruce Murray (associate professor of planetary science), Robert Sharp (Caltech), Robert Leighton (principal investigator), and Clayton La Baw (JPL).
Murray had been a member of the Caltech faculty for about five years when this photo was taken in July 1965. He went on to replace William Pickering as Director of JPL in 1976, retired from that position in 1982, and returned to Caltech.
In today's universe, it seems unimaginable that a planetary spacecraft would leave the comfort of its terrestrial perch without some kind of imaging system on board. But in the early 1960s, as NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was reveling in the success of its first planetary mission to Venus and setting its sights on Mars -- a destination whose challenges would unfurl themselves much more readily than they had with Venus -- for some scientists, the question of camera or none was still just that, a question.
Bud Schurmeier, project manager for NASA's Ranger missions, a few years ago recalled, "There were a lot of scientists who said, 'Pictures, that's not science. That's just public information.' Over the years, that attitude has changed so markedly, and so much information has been obtained just from the photographs."
The recent passing of former JPL Director and career-long planetary imaging advocate Bruce C. Murray, 81, is a reminder of how different our understanding of the planets -- and our appreciation of them -- would be without space-based cameras.
This truth was evident as early as 1965, when NASA's Mariner 4, carrying an imaging system designed by a young Murray and his colleagues, arrived at Mars. It marked the world's first encounter with the Red Planet, a remarkable achievement in itself. But for an anxious press, public and mission team, the Holy Grail lay in catching that first glimpse of Mars up-close.
It was a waiting game that was too much for some. For everyone, in fact:
What resulted became known as "The first image of Mars." And in many ways it symbolizes -- more than any of the actual 22 photographs captured by Mariner 4 -- how significant this opportunity to truly "see" Mars had been.
Now, nearly 50 years after Mariner 4's arrival at Mars, imaging systems are an integral piece of our quest to understand the planets and the universe beyond, playing key roles in scientific investigations, spacecraft navigation and public support for missions. It's because of that first image that we can now look at that red dot in the night sky and picture what has become our new reality of Mars:
Traveling confidently and alone, Dawn continues to make its way through the silent depths of the main asteroid belt. The only spacecraft ever to have orbited a resident of the vast territory between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn conducted a spectacular exploration of gigantic Vesta, revealing a complex place that resembles the terrestrial planets more than typical asteroids. Now the interplanetary adventurer is on its long journey to the uncharted dwarf planet Ceres, by far the largest of all asteroids (975 kilometers, or more than 600 miles, in equatorial diameter). In 2015, the mysterious world of rock and ice will begin to give up its ancient secrets to the immigrant from distant Earth.
Earth, Vesta, Dawn, and Ceres are following their own separate paths around the sun. The spacecraft is patiently reshaping its orbit, using its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system to accomplish a deep-space expedition that would be impossible with conventional propulsion.
As we have seen in many previous logs (including, for example, here), the higher an object's orbit, the slower it needs to move in order to balance the gravitational pull, which diminishes with distance. Blistering Mercury orbits the sun faster than Venus, Venus goes faster than Earth, Earth goes faster than Mars, and Mars goes faster than the residents of the asteroid belt and the cold planets of the outer solar system. In the same way, satellites that orbit close to Earth, including the International Space Station, move faster than those at greater altitudes, and the moon travels even more slowly in its very high orbit.
Dawn is now a permanent inhabitant of the main asteroid belt. Therefore, the massive sun, the gravitational master of the solar system, has a weaker grip on it than on Earth. So as Dawn maneuvers from Vesta to Ceres, Earth revolves more rapidly around the sun. This month, their independent motions have taken them to their greatest separation of the year, as they are on opposite sides of the sun. How truly remarkable that humankind can accomplish such a feat!
On August 4, the planet and its robotic ambassador to the cosmos were an extraordinary 3.47 AU (519 million kilometers, or 322 million miles) apart. (To recapture the feeling of your position in the universe then, it may be helpful to know that the maximum range was attained at 4:16 a.m. PDT.) From the perspective of terrestrial observers, had they possessed the superhuman (and even supertelescopic) vision needed to descry the tiny ship far beyond the blindingly bright star, Dawn would have appeared to be very close to the sun but not directly behind it. To rendezvous with Vesta and then with Ceres, the spacecraft has tilted the plane of its solar orbit. Some of the time it is north of Earth's orbital plane, sometimes it is south. August 4 was during the northern segment, so Dawn would have been a little north of the sun.
It's time to refer to one of those novel clocks available in the Dawn gift shop on your planet (although if you already have such a clock, it probably doesn't tell you that it's time -- we stand by our policy of full refunds within 24 hours, as measured by our Dawn clocks). With the sun at the center of the clock, Earth's motion would be like that of a short minute hand. Dawn, both farther from the sun and moving more slowly, would be following the path of a longer hour hand. If we ignore the effect of the ion thrust, which is constantly changing the orbit, and the slight misalignment of the hour hand representing Dawn's being in a different plane, the conditions on August 4 were like those at 6:00.
As time progresses and Earth continues circling the sun, it will come closer to Dawn until April 2014 (like 12:00). Even then, however, they will be over 1.55 AU (232 million kilometers, or 144 million miles) apart, and they will never be that close again. The spacecraft will continue climbing higher and higher from the sun toward Ceres, so by the time Earth loops around once more, Dawn will be even farther from it. In the meantime, when next the arrangement is like 6:00, in December 2014, the separation will be more than 3.78 AU (565 million kilometers, or 351 million miles), even greater than the remarkable range a few weeks ago.
The tremendous distance this month between the spacecraft and the humans it represents provides a convenient occasion to reflect on the extraordinary nature of this ambitious mission of discovery, and regular readers know that we rarely eschew such an opportunity. Indeed, Dawn and Earth have been on opposite sides of the sun three times before (albeit not at the same distance), in November 2008, November 2010, and March 2012. In each case, we explained more about the nature of the alignment and contemplated the profundity of such an epic adventure.
Well beyond Mars, fewer than a dozen probes have ever operated as far from Earth as Dawn. Those interested in the history of space exploration (such as your correspondent) will enumerate them, but what should be more rewarding is marveling at the extent of humanity's reach. At this astounding range, the deep-space ship was well in excess of one million times farther from Earth than the International Space Station and Tiangong-1.
Some readers may have heard tell that in days of yore, a few fortunate humans traveled far from Earth. That was long, long ago, but tales pass from generation to generation, and even some dim memories survive. Apollo astronauts physically ventured to the moon, and many, many more people were along for the ride. Yet even in those ancient times of amazing escapades, no person reached farther than the moon does. But Dawn, built and operated by humans to take them where they themselves cannot (yet) go, was 1,300 times farther than the greatest distance attained by those primitive explorers. And as with Apollo, anyone can participate in this grand undertaking. This is a journey for everyone.
The scope is staggering and may not be possible to grasp fully. We evolved to have a clear understanding of distances that mattered to terrestrial creatures who had neither means nor need to comprehend much beyond their local environment. But now, thanks to the brilliance, persistence, meticulousness, creativity, and curiosity of our species, our reach extends to thousands of times farther than any individual has traveled. We do more than only aspire to extend ourselves from Earth. With our spacecraft, we create the means to transport ourselves throughout the solar system. Our handiwork visits places and shows us sights far, far, far beyond what could even have been imagined until recently. Powered by the noble spirit of adventure and the yearning for knowledge, our celestial emissaries carry us with them. Through them, as we behold alien landscapes, sometimes eerie in their familiarity yet more often eerie in their exoticism, but always beautiful and spellbinding, everyone who hungers for insights into the universe is nourished. Unbound by the planet on (or very near which) we reside, we take flight through space and time, and we are witness to spectacles of cosmic proportions dating back to the dawn of the solar system. With Dawn, we are able to reach beyond our humble home, indeed beyond ourselves. We learn much as we do, but we grow wiser even just for the effort itself.
Dawn is 21 million kilometers (13 million miles) from Vesta and 47 million kilometers (29 million miles) from Ceres. It is also 3.43 AU (513 million kilometers or 319 million miles) from Earth, or 1,270 times as far as the moon and 3.40 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 57 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
1:00 p.m. PDT August 30, 2013
Powering its way through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn continues on course and on schedule for its 2015 appointment with dwarf planet Ceres. After spending more than a year orbiting and scrutinizing Vesta, the second most massive object in the asteroid belt, the robotic explorer has its sights set on the largest object between the sun and Neptune that a spacecraft has not yet visited. This exotic expedition to unveil mysterious alien worlds would be impossible without the probe's ion propulsion system.
Ion propulsion is not a source of power for this interplanetary spaceship. Rather, the craft needs a great deal of power to operate its ion propulsion system and all other systems. It needs so much that...
We crave power!!
The ion propulsion system is power-hungry. The process of ionizing xenon and then accelerating it to high velocity consumes a significant amount of electrical power, all of which is provided by the spacecraft's huge solar arrays. With these two wings and its ion tail, Dawn resembles a celestial dragonfly. But this extraterrestrial odonate is a giant, with a wingspan of 19.7 meters (nearly 65 feet). When it was launched in 2007, this was the greatest tip-to-tip length of any probe NASA had ever dispatched on an interplanetary voyage. (Some such spacecraft have had flexible wire-like antennas that reach to greater lengths.) The large area of solar cells is needed to capture feeble sunlight in the remote asteroid belt to meet all of the electrical needs. Each solar array wing is the width of a singles tennis court, and the entire structure would extend from a pitcher's mound to home plate on a professional baseball field, although Dawn is engaged in activities considerably more inspiring and rewarding than competitive sports.
To sail the ship to its intended destination, navigators plot a complex course on the solar system sea. The thrust delivered by the ion engine depends on the power level; higher power translates into higher (but still ever so gentle) thrust. The farther Dawn is from the luminous sun, the less power is available, so the thrust is lower. Therefore, to keep it on its itinerary, mission planners need to know the thrust at all times in the future. It would not be a recipe for success to propel the spacecraft to a position in space from which it could not achieve enough thrust to accomplish the rest of the carefully designed journey to Ceres.
To formulate the flight plan then requires knowing how much power will be available even as the probe ventures farther from the sun. Engineers make mathematical predictions of the power the solar arrays will generate, but these calculations are surprisingly difficult. Well, perhaps some readers would not be surprised, but it is more complicated than simply reducing the power in proportion to the intensity of the sunlight. As one example, at greater distances from the sun, the temperature of the arrays in the cold depths of space would be even lower, and the efficiency of the solar cells depends on their temperature. In 2008, the operations team devised and implemented a method to refine their estimates of the solar array performance, and that work enabled the deep-space traveler to arrive at Vesta earlier and depart later. Now they have developed a related but superior technique, which the faithful spacecraft executed flawlessly on June 24.
The only way to measure the power generation capability of the arrays is to draw power from them. With the ion thrust off, even with all other systems turned on, the spacecraft cannot consume as much power as the arrays can provide, so no meaningful measurement would be possible.
In typical operations, Dawn keeps its solar arrays pointed directly at the sun. For this special calibration, it rotated them so the incident sunlight came at a different angle. This reduced the total amount of light falling on the cells, effectively creating the conditions the spacecraft will experience when it has receded from the sun. As the angle increased, corresponding to greater distances from the brilliant star, the arrays produced less power, so the ion engine had to be throttled down. (The engines can be operated at 112 different throttle levels, each with a different input power and different thrust level.)
Engineers estimated what the maximum throttle level would be at each of the angles as well as the total power all other systems would consume during the test and then programmed it so the ion propulsion system would throttle down appropriately as the solar array angle increased. Of course, they could not know exactly what the highest throttle level at each angle would be; if they did, then they would already know the solar array characteristics well enough that the calibration would be unnecessary. Fortunately, however, they did not need to determine the perfect levels in advance. The sophisticated robot is smart enough to reduce by a few throttle levels if it detects that all systems combined are drawing more power than the solar arrays generate.
Under normal circumstances, the spacecraft doesn't need to adjust the ion throttle level on its own. Engineers know the solar array performance well enough that they can predict the correct setting with high accuracy for a typical four-week sequence of commands stored onboard. It is only for the much greater distances from the sun in the years ahead that the uncertainty becomes important. In addition, during regular operations, if the spacecraft temporarily needs to use more heaters than usual (more than 140 heaters are distributed around the ship, each turning on and off as needed), thereby increasing the power demand, its battery can make up for the difference. That avoids unnecessary throttle changes.
Over the course of the exercise, the arrays were positioned at five angles, each for an hour, and the main computer recorded their output power and other pertinent measurements. Initially, when the wings were pointing directly at the sun, a glowing orb 2.48 AU (371 million kilometers, or 230 million miles) away, together they could generate more than two kilowatts. The ion propulsion system then was thrusting at level 53, consuming 1,368 watts. When the arrays were tipped to their maximum angle of 47 degrees, the insolation was the same as it would be at 3.00 AU (449 million kilometers, or 279 million miles), and the system yielded more than 1,300 watts. By then, the program engineers had stored onboard had throttled the ion drive down to level 24, where it drew 753 watts, and the spacecraft autonomously reduced it still further. When the activity was finished, the wings were turned back to their usual orientation, facing the distant sun so they could generate the maximum power possible, and the Brobdingnagian dragonfly could resume its normal flight pattern.
The calibration will be repeated occasionally as Dawn proceeds on its deep-space trek. Engineers will use the resulting data to continue to refine their plans for reaching Ceres and for maneuvering in orbit once there. Yet this is just one of the myriad details that must be worked out with exquisite care to ensure that the exploration of that enigmatic world is as richly productive, as tremendously rewarding, as outstandingly successful as the investigation of Vesta.
It is thanks to the extraordinary scrupulousness of their work that Dawn's human counterparts are able to accomplish this ambitious adventure. And although they are responsible for ensuring that the craft achieves its objectives, this endeavor extends far beyond the members of the team. This is a mission of humankind. Everyone who ever gazes in wonder at the night sky is part of it. Everyone who is curious about nature and about the reality of the universe is part of it. Everyone who hungers for knowledge and insight is part of it. Everyone who feels the passion for pursuing bold dreams and the exhilaration of discovery is part of it. Everyone who feels the lure of the unknown is part of it. Everyone who appreciates the great challenges and the great rewards of aiming beyond the horizon is part of it. So as Dawn continues its audacious exploits, anyone can be part of it.
Dawn is 18 million kilometers (11 million miles) from Vesta and 50 million kilometers (31 million miles) from Ceres. It is also 3.47 AU (519 million kilometers or 322 million miles) from Earth, or 1,310 times as far as the moon and 3.42 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 58 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PDT July 29, 2013
Dear Dawnamic Readers,
The indefatigable Dawn spacecraft is continuing its extraordinary interplanetary flight on behalf of inquisitive creatures on distant Earth. Progressing ever farther from Vesta, the rocky and rugged world it so recently explored, the ship is making good progress toward its second port of call, dwarf planet Ceres.
We have seen in many logs that this adventure would be quite impossible without its advanced ion propulsion system. Even a mission only to orbit Vesta, which Dawn has accomplished with such stunning success, would have been unaffordable in NASA's Discovery Program without ion propulsion. This is the only probe ever to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But now, thanks to this sophisticated technology, it is going beyond even that accomplishment to do something no other spacecraft has attempted. Dawn is the only mission ever targeted to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, making it truly an interplanetary spaceship.
Ion propulsion is 10 times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion, so it enables much more ambitious missions. It uses its xenon propellant so parsimoniously, however, that the thrust is also exceptionally gentle. Indeed, the ion engine exerts about as much force on the spacecraft as you would feel if you held a single sheet of paper in your hand. At today's thrust level, it would take more than five days to accelerate from zero to 60 mph. While that won't rattle your bones, in the frictionless, zero-gravity conditions of spaceflight, the effect of the thrust gradually accumulates. Instead of thrusting for five days, Dawn thrusts for years. Ion propulsion delivers acceleration with patience, and patience is among this explorer's many virtues.
To accomplish its mission, Dawn is outfitted with three ion engines. In the irreverent spirit with which this project has always been conducted, the units are fancifully known as #1, #2, and #3. (The locations of the thrusters were disclosed in a log shortly after launch, once the spacecraft was too far from Earth for the information to be exploited for tawdry sensationalism.) For comparison, the Star Wars TIE fighters were Twin Ion Engine ships, so now science fact does one better than science fiction. On the other hand, the TIE fighters employed a design that did seem to provide greater agility, perhaps at the expense of fuel efficiency. Your correspondent would concur that when you are trying to destroy your enemy while dodging blasts from his laser cannons, economy of propellant consumption probably isn't the most important consideration.
At any rate, Dawn only uses one ion engine at a time. Since August 31, 2011, it has accomplished all of its thrusting with thruster #3. That thruster propelled Dawn along its complex spiral path down from an altitude of 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) to 210 kilometers (130 miles) above Vesta's dramatic landscape and then back up again. Eventually, the engine pushed Dawn out of orbit, and it has continued to work to reshape the spacecraft's heliocentric course so that it ultimately will match Ceres's orbit around the sun.
Although any of the thrusters can accomplish the needed propulsion, and all three are still healthy, engineers consider many factors in deciding which to use at different times in the mission. Now they have decided to put #2 back to work. So on June 24, after its regular monthly hiatus in thrusting to point the main antenna to Earth for a communications session, the robotic explorer turned to aim that thruster, rather than thruster #3, in the direction needed to continue the journey to Ceres. Despite not being operated in nearly two years, #2 came to life as smoothly as ever. It is now emitting a blue-green beam of xenon ions as the craft has its sights set on the mysterious alien world ahead.
Some readers (surely including our hungry friends the Numerivores) may be interested in the numbers that illustrate the amazing performance of the ion propulsion system, so we will include a few morsels here. Spacecraft using conventional propulsion coast the great majority of the time, using their main engines for minutes or a small number of hours over the entire course of their missions. (Note that most natural objects coast as well, including the moon orbiting Earth, Earth and other planets and asteroids orbiting the sun, and the sun and other stars orbiting within the Milky Way Galaxy.) Dawn has spent 63 percent, almost two-thirds, of its time in space in powered flight, or more than 3.6 years. (This is well in excess of any other spacecraft's total thrust time.) Engine #3 has accomplished slightly more than half of that, or 1.8 years. Engine #1 completed more than 10 months of thrusting, and engine #2 is now at 11 months and steadily increasing. (A partial summary of the history of thruster use is here.)
In all that time maneuvering through the solar system, Dawn has expended only 305 kilograms (672 pounds) of xenon. That's equivalent to less than 2.7 milligrams per second. So averaged over its deep space travels so far, the ship has consumed only half a pound of xenon per day of thrusting. What extraordinary efficiency!
That thrust has been enough to change Dawn's speed by about 8.3 kilometers per second (18,500 mph). That is nearly double the previous record for propulsive velocity change set by Deep Space 1, the first interplanetary mission to use ion propulsion.
Although it has already maneuvered far more than any other spacecraft, it still has much more ahead to reach and explore Ceres. Indeed, remarkable though the ion propulsion is, being so efficient, gentle, and persistent, it is a tool. Its importance is in what it allows the spacecraft to accomplish. Ion propulsion is taking Dawn to giants of the main asteroid belt. Vesta and Ceres have been espied from Earth since the beginning of the 19th century (and were considered planets until scientific knowledge advanced enough to change their designation). After more than 200 years, we finally have the capability to turn those smudges of light among the stars into complex, richly detailed worlds. Revealing not only fascinating secrets about the dawn of the solar system, the explorer also unveils vistas that excite everyone who is curious about the nature of the universe. Far more powerful than ion propulsion is the drive within us to undertake grand adventures, to push our boundaries, to overcome our limitations, and to challenge our imagination and our ingenuity in pursuit of noble rewards. Perched atop its blue-green pillar of xenon ions, Dawn is a dynamic symbol of humankind's insatiable drive to know the cosmos.
Dawn is 15 million kilometers (9.5 million miles) from Vesta and 53 million kilometers (33 million miles) from Ceres. It is also 3.41 AU (510 million kilometers or 317 million miles) from Earth, or 1,300 times as far as the moon and 3.35 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 57 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
6:00 p.m. PDT June 30, 2013
Dear Fellow Martians,
While the Curiosity rover is busy exploring the Martian surface, I am going to school as a sophomore at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kan. I am very involved in my school's environmental club, and this year we started a composting program in our cafeteria.
I've also taken on a role in my local Sierra Club chapter's energy efficiency campaign. I think caring for our planet goes hand-in-hand with science and exploration. It is something that is very important to me.
In February, I rode a bus to Washington, D.C., with 40 other people to attend the Forward On Climate Change rally. The bus ride was a little over 24 hours, but it didn't feel that long at all. I had so much fun meeting and talking with people who had similar passions and motivations to those that I have. The rally and its immense energy opened my eyes to the things I could accomplish in my own community.
In May, I visited my grandparents in Beijing, China. Saying goodbye is always hard, because I absolutely love seeing them, talking to them, and being with them.
This week, I started my internship at JPL, one of my favorite places in the entire world. I am sure this will be the first of many letters that I will write to you. I can't wait to tell you more about my experiences in Pasadena as my summer continues.
With love, Clara
Aug. 5, 2012: Curiosity lands in Gale Crater. I watch from Earth, crying and shouting on the edge of my seat.
Sept. 27, 2012: Curiosity finds evidence of an ancient streambed. I play my third tennis match of the season, and share the rover's exciting discovery with my parents when I get home from school.
March 12, 2013: A rock sample analysis shows ancient Mars could have supported microbial life. I write about it in my chemistry assignment.
June 10, 2013: This is the first day of my internship at JPL, a day I have been dreaming about since I was a little girl. I don't know how I got to be so lucky.
Traveling from one alien world to another, Dawn is reliably powering its way through the main asteroid belt with its ion propulsion system. Vesta, the fascinating and complex protoplanet it explored in 2011 and 2012, falls farther and farther behind as the spacecraft gently and patiently reshapes its orbit around the sun, aiming for a 2015 rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres.
The stalwart adventurer has recently completed its longest uninterrupted ion thrust period yet. As part of the campaign to conserve precious hydrazine propellant, Dawn now suspends thrusting once every four weeks to point its main antenna to Earth. (In contrast, spacecraft with conventional chemical propulsion spend the vast majority of time coasting.) Because of details of the mission operations schedule and the schedule for NASA's Deep Space Network, the thrust durations can vary by a few days. As a result, the spacecraft spent 31.2 days thrusting without a hiatus. This exceeds Deep Space 1's longest sustained powered flight of 29.2 days. While there currently are no plans to thrust for longer times, the unique craft certainly is capable of doing so. The principal limitation is how much data it can store on the performance of all subsystems (pressures, temperatures, currents, voltages, valve positions, etc.) for subsequent reporting to its terrestrial colleagues.
Thanks to the ship's dependability, the operations team has been able to devote much of its energies recently to developing and refining the complex plans for the exploration of Ceres. You might be among the privileged readers who will get a preview when we begin describing the plans later this year.
Controllers also have devised some special activities for the spacecraft to perform in the near future, accounts of which are predicted to be in the next two logs.
In addition, team members have had time to maintain their skills for when the spacecraft needs more attention. Earlier this month, they conducted an operational readiness test (ORT). One diabolical engineer carefully configured the Dawn spacecraft simulator at JPL to behave as if a pebble one-half of a centimeter (one-fifth of an inch) in diameter shooting through the asteroid belt collided with the probe at well over twice the velocity of a high-performance rifle bullet.
When the explorer entered this region of space, we discussed that it was not as risky as residents of other parts of the solar system might assume. Dawn does not require Han Solo's piloting skills to avoid most of the dangerous rocky debris.
The robot could tolerate such a wound, but it would require some help from operators to resume normal operations. This exercise presented the spacecraft team with an opportunity to spend several days working through the diagnosis and performing the steps necessary to continue the mission (using some of the ship's backup systems). While the specific problem is extremely unlikely to occur, the ORT provided valuable training for new members of the project and served to keep others sharp.
One more benefit of the smooth operations is the time that it enables your correspondent to write his third shortest log ever. (Feel free to do the implied research.) Frequent readers can only hope he strives to achieve such a gratifying feat again!
Dawn is 13 million kilometers (7.9 million miles) from Vesta and 54 million kilometers (34 million miles) from Ceres. It is also 3.25 AU (486 million kilometers or 302 million miles) from Earth, or 1,275 times as far as the moon and 3.20 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 54 minutes to make the round trip.
Dear Dawnscerning Readers,
Nearly three times as far from Earth as the sun is, the Dawn spacecraft is making very good progress on its ambitious trek from Vesta to Ceres. After a spectacular adventure at the second most massive resident of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn used its extraordinary ion propulsion system to leave it behind and undertake the long journey to a dwarf planet.
Ceres orbits the sun outside Vesta's orbit, yet Dawn is now closer to the sun than both of these alien worlds. How can it be that as the probe climbs from one to the other, it seems to be falling inward? Perhaps the answer lies in the text below; let's venture on and find out!
On Halloween we discussed why Dawn is heading in toward the sun, but this question is different. Vesta also is getting closer to the sun, but what's of interest now is that Dawn, despite its more remote destination, has been approaching the sun more quickly. That earlier log stands out as the best one ever written on this exciting mission in the entire history of October 2012, but if you prefer not to visit it now, we can summarize here the explanation for the spacecraft moving toward the sun. Like all members of the sun's entourage, Vesta and Ceres follow elliptical orbits, their distances from the master of the solar system growing and shrinking as they loop around it. Even Earth's orbit, although nearly round, certainly is not perfectly circular. Our planet is a little closer to the sun in the northern hemisphere winter (southern hemisphere summer) than it is in the summer (southern hemisphere winter). Dawn's orbit is elliptical as well, so it naturally moves nearer to the sun sometimes, and now is such a time. But that does not address why it is currently closer to the sun than Vesta, even though it is seeking out the more distant Ceres.
Because it will orbit Ceres, and not simply fly past it (which would be significantly easier but less valuable), Dawn must make its own orbit around the sun be identical to its target's. But that is not the entire story. After spending 14 months orbiting Vesta, Dawn's challenge is more than to change the shape of its orbit to match Ceres's. The spacecraft also must be at the same place in Ceres's heliocentric orbit that Ceres itself is.
It would not be very rewarding to follow the same looping path around the sun but always be somewhere else on that path. You can visualize this if you have one of the many defective -- er, exotic clocks from the Dawn gift shop on your planet that have two minute hands. If the clock starts with one hand pointed at 12 and another pointed at 1, they will take the same repetitive route, but neither hand will ever catch up with the other. For Dawn's goal of exploring Ceres, this would not prove satisfying. Therefore, part of the objective of the ion thrusting is to ensure the spacecraft arrives not only on the same heliocentric course as Ceres but is there when Ceres is also.
This is a problem familiar to all readers who have maneuvered in orbit, where the principles of orbital mechanics are the rules of the road. To solve it, we rely on one of the laws that we have addressed many times in these logs: objects in a lower orbit travel faster. We described this in more detail in February, and we can recall the essential idea here. The gravitational attraction of any body, whether it is the sun, Earth, a black hole, or anything else, is greater at shorter ranges. So to balance that strong inward pull, an orbiter is compelled to race around quickly. At higher orbits, where gravity is weaker, a more leisurely orbital pace suffices.
We can take advantage of this characteristic of orbits. If we drop to a slightly lower orbit, we travel along more swiftly. That is precisely what Dawn needs to do in order to ensure that when it finishes expanding and tilting its orbit in 2015 so that it is the same as Ceres's, it winds up at the same location as its target. This would be like speeding up the minute hand that had begun at the 12, allowing it to catch up with the hand that would otherwise always be leading it.
Dawn's orbital maneuvering is a little bit more complicated than that of clock hands, but thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of the operations team and the unique capability of its ion propulsion system, the interplanetary ship is sailing on a carefully plotted course to its next celestial port. As soon as it departed from Vesta's gravitational embrace in September, it slipped in closer to the sun. Today, Vesta is 2.53 AU from the sun, and Dawn is 2.51 AU, so the spacecraft is three million kilometers (1.9 million miles) nearer to the sun. (Dawn is farther from Vesta than that, because they are not aligned with the sun. The spacecraft has also moved ahead of the rocky behemoth.)
Of course, eventually Dawn will climb to higher altitudes from the sun than Vesta, because its destination lies beyond. As they progress on their own independent orbits, with Dawn constantly reshaping its, they will be at the same solar distance on July 31, 2013. After that, the robotic explorer will never again be as close to the sun as Vesta. By then, they will be 18 million kilometers (11 million miles) apart. But they will always be connected. Dawn was Earth's first probe to take up residence in the main asteroid belt, and Vesta was its first target. The exotic world had beckoned to humankind for over two centuries before the spacecraft obtained its richly detailed view. Now what was little more than an indistinct point of light is known as a complex and fascinating place with a unique character. And as it follows its repetitive orbit around the sun, its erstwhile companion seeks to reveal the secrets of another extraterrestrial enigma, Ceres. Great treasures await Dawn as it patiently continues its extraordinary deep-space expedition.
Dawn is 10 million kilometers (6.3 million miles) from Vesta and 56 million kilometers (35 million miles) from Ceres. It is also 2.99 AU (448 million kilometers or 278 million miles) from Earth, or 1,215 times as far as the moon and 2.97 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 50 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
7:00 p.m. PDT April 30, 2013