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Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at the protoplanet Ceres

Illustration of Dawn's approach phase and RC3 orbit

Dear Ardawnt Readers,

Continuing its daring mission to explore some of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system, Dawn remains on course and on schedule for its rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres next year. Silently and patiently streaking through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the ardent adventurer is gradually reshaping its orbit around the Sun with its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system. Vesta, the giant protoplanet it unveiled during its spectacular expedition there in 2011-2012, grows ever more distant.

In December, and January, we saw Dawn's plans for the "approach phase" to Ceres and how it will slip gracefully into orbit under the gentle control of its ion engine. Entering orbit, gratifying and historic though it will be, is only a means to an end. The reason for orbiting its destinations is to have all the time needed to use its suite of sophisticated sensors to scrutinize these alien worlds.

As at Vesta, Dawn will take advantage of the extraordinary capability of its ion propulsion system to maneuver extensively in orbit at Ceres. During the course of its long mission there, it will fly to four successively lower orbital altitudes, each chosen to optimize certain investigations. (The probe occupied six different orbits at Vesta, where two of them followed the lowest altitude. As the spacecraft will not leave Ceres, there is no value in ascending from its fourth and lowest orbit.) All of the plans for exploring Ceres have been developed to discover as much as possible about this mysterious dwarf planet while husbanding the precious hydrazine propellant, ensuring that Dawn will complete its ambitious mission there regardless of the health of its reaction wheels.

All of its orbits at Ceres will be circular and polar, meaning the spacecraft will pass over the north pole and the south pole, so all latitudes will come within view. Thanks to Ceres's own rotation, all longitudes will be presented to the orbiting observer. To visualize this, think of (or even look at) a common globe of Earth. A ring encircling it represents Dawn's orbital path. If the ring is only over the equator, the spacecraft cannot attain good views of the high northern and southern latitudes. If, instead, the ring goes over both poles, then the combined motion of the globe spinning on its axis and the craft moving along the ring provides an opportunity for complete coverage.

Dawn will orbit in the same direction it did at Vesta, traveling from north to south over the side illuminated by the distant Sun. After flying over the south pole, it will head north, the surface directly beneath it in the dark of night. When it travels over the north pole, the terrain below will come into sunlight and the ship will sail south again.

Dawn's first orbital phase is distinguished not only by providing the first opportunity to conduct intensive observations of Ceres but also by having the least appealing name of any of the Ceres phases. It is known as RC3, or the third "rotation characterization" of the Ceres mission. (RC1 and RC2 will occur during the approach phase, as described in December.)

During RC3 in April 2015, Dawn will have its first opportunity for a global characterization of its new residence in the asteroid belt. It will take pictures and record visible and infrared spectra of the surface, which will help scientists determine its composition. In addition to learning about the appearance and makeup of Ceres, these observations will allow scientists to establish exactly where Ceres's pole points. The axis Earth rotates around, for example, happens to point very near a star that has been correspondingly named Polaris, or the North Star. [Note to editors of local editions: You may change the preceding sentence to describe wherever the axis of your planet points.] We know only roughly where Ceres's pole is from our telescopic studies, but Dawn's measurements in RC3 will yield a much more accurate result. Also, as the spacecraft circles in Ceres's gravitational hold, navigators will measure the strength of the gravitational pull and hence its overall mass.

RC3 will be at an orbital altitude of about 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). From there, the dwarf planet will appear eight times larger than the moon as viewed from Earth, or about the size of a soccer ball seen from 10 feet (3.1 meters). At that distance, Dawn will be able to capture the entire disk of Ceres in its pictures. The explorer's camera, designed for mapping unfamiliar extraterrestrial landscapes from orbit, will see details more than 20 times finer than we have now from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Although all instruments will be operated in RC3, the gamma-ray and neutron detector (GRaND) will not be able to detect the faint nuclear emissions from Ceres when it is this far away. Rather, it will measure cosmic radiation. In August we will learn more about how GRaND will measure Ceres's atomic composition when it is closer.

It will take about 15 days to complete a single orbital revolution at this altitude. Meanwhile, Ceres turns on its axis in just over nine hours (more than two and a half times faster than Earth). Dawn's leisurely pace compared to the spinning world beneath it presents a very convenient way to map it. It is almost as if the probe hovers in place, progressing only through a short arc of its orbit as Ceres pirouettes helpfully before it.

When Dawn is on the lit side of Ceres over a latitude of about 43 degrees north, it will point its scientific instruments at the unfamiliar, exotic surface. As Ceres completes one full rotation, the robot will fill its data buffers with as much as they can hold, storing images and spectra. By then, most of the northern hemisphere will have presented itself, and Dawn will have traveled to about 34 degrees north latitude. The spacecraft will then aim its main antenna to Earth and beam its prized findings back for all those who long to know more about the mysteries of the solar system. When Dawn is between 3 degrees north and 6 degrees south latitude, it will perform the same routine, acquiring more photos and spectra as Ceres turns to reveal its equatorial regions. To gain a thorough view of the southern latitudes, it will follow the same strategy as it orbits from 34 degrees south to 43 degrees south.

When Dawn goes over to the dark side, it will still have important measurements to make (as long as Darth Vader does not interfere). While the surface immediately beneath it will be in darkness, part of the limb will be illuminated, displaying a lovely crescent against the blackness of space. Both in the southern hemisphere and in the northern, the spacecraft will collect more pictures and spectra from this unique perspective. Dawn's orbital dance has been carefully choreographed to ensure the sensitive instruments are not pointed too close to the Sun.

Although it is not the primary objective of the measurements, team members are working to determine whether observations from the vantage point of the night side of RC3 might shed more light on the recent fascinating detection of water vapor around Ceres by the Herschel Space Observatory. Whether the water is lofted into space by ice sublimating on the surface or by geysers or cryovolcanoes (“cold volcanoes,” which may be active on this small, frigid world of rock and ice far from the sun) is not yet known. Scientists do not even know whether any water vapor will still be there when Dawn is. Even if it is not, it may be that signs of water will be evident on the surface from other measurements. We will discuss this intriguing possibility more in the December 2014 log.

Dawn’s controllers will take advantage of the flexibility afforded by ion propulsion to guide the spacecraft into whatever part of the RC3 orbit turns out to be most efficient, based on details of the trajectory as it closes in on Ceres. So, for example, if it spirals down to RC3 over the unlit side, its observations of the day hemisphere will first be in the north, then the equator, then the south. But if it arrives in RC3 over the low northern latitudes on the side lit by the sun, it will begin its observations over the equator and then continue in the south. After it flies north over the other side and then returns to the half of Ceres that is in daylight, it will be ready to conclude RC3 by collecting its northern hemisphere data. The flight team has formulated the plan so that the activities can be executed in whatever order is most natural. The schedule will be finalized during the approach phase, and readers may rest assured that the answer will be presented in these logs.

If all goes according to plan, which is never assured when undertaking challenging tasks in a forbidding, distant, alien environment that has never even been visited by a flyby spacecraft for an initial reconnaissance, Dawn will collect in excess of 1,000 pictures and several million spectra in RC3. After that rich bounty is securely on Earth, it will resume ion thrusting to lower its altitude to the next orbit. We will discuss the spiral descent in April and that second observation phase in May.

Dawn’s first inspection of Ceres in RC3 promises both to provide tremendous advancements in our knowledge and whet our appetites for its subsequent examinations. The most massive resident of the main asteroid belt was also the first one to be discovered. Yet for the more than two centuries since then, our glimpses from afar have shown little more than a fuzzy round dot. That distant orb, shining among the stars, has intrigued us for so long. When finally its invitation for an ambassador from Earth is answered next year, the secrets it has held since the dawn of the solar system will begin to be revealed. The rewards for the long and challenging journey will be new insights, new understanding, and new fuel for the fires that burn within everyone who feels the passion to explore.

Dawn is 14 million miles (22 million kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 1.76 AU (163 million miles, or 263 million kilometers) from Earth, or 725 times as far as the moon and 1.77 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 29 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
3:00 p.m. PST February 28, 2014


  • Marc Rayman

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at the dwarf planet Ceres

illustration of Dawn's orbit

Dear Rendawnvous,

Dawn is continuing its trek through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Leaving behind a blue-green wake of xenon from its ion propulsion system, its sights are set on dwarf planet Ceres ahead. The journey has been long, but the veteran space traveler (and its support team on distant Earth) is making good progress for its rendezvous early next year.

Last month, we had a preview of many of the activities the probe will execute during the three months that culminate in settling into the first observational orbit at Ceres in April 2015. At that orbit, about 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) above the alien landscapes of rock and ice, Dawn will begin its intensive investigations. Nevertheless, even during the "approach phase," it will often observe Ceres with its camera and one of its spectrometers to gain a better fix on its trajectory and to perform some preliminary characterizations of the mysterious world prior to initiating its in-depth studies. The discussion in December did not cover the principal activity, however, which is one very familiar not only to the spacecraft but also to readers of these logs. The majority of the time in the approach phase will be devoted to continuing the ion-powered flight. We described this before Vesta, but for those few readers who don't have perfect recall (we know who you are), let's take another look at how this remarkable technology is used to deliver the adventurer to the desired orbit around Ceres.

Thrusting is not necessary for a spacecraft to remain in orbit, just as the moon remains in orbit around Earth and Earth and other planets remain in orbit around the sun without the benefit of propulsion. All but a very few spacecraft spend most of their time in space coasting, following the same orbit over and over unless redirected by a gravitational encounter with another body. In contrast, with its extraordinarily efficient ion propulsion system, Dawn's near-continuous thrusting gradually changes its orbit. Thrusting since December 2007 has propelled Dawn from the orbit in which the Delta rocket deposited it after launch to orbits of still greater distance from the sun. The flight profile was carefully designed to send the craft by Mars in February 2009, so our celestial explorer could appropriate some of the planet's orbital energy for the journey to the more distant asteroid belt, of which it is now a permanent resident. In exchange for Mars raising Dawn's heliocentric orbit, Dawn lowered Mars's orbit, ensuring the solar system's energy account remained balanced.

While spacecraft have flown past a few asteroids in the main belt (although none as large as the gargantuan Vesta or Ceres, the two most massive objects in the belt), no prior mission has ever attempted to orbit one, much less two. For that matter, this is the first mission ever undertaken to orbit any two extraterrestrial destinations. Dawn's exclusive assignment would be quite impossible without its uniquely capable ion propulsion system. But with its light touch on the accelerator, taking nearly four years to travel from Earth past Mars to Vesta, and more than two and a half years from Vesta to Ceres, how will it enter orbit around Ceres? As we review this topic in preparation for Ceres, bear in mind that this is more than just a cool concept or neat notion. This is real. The remarkable adventurer actually accomplished the extraordinary feats at Vesta of getting into and out of orbit using the delicate thrust of its ion engines.

Whether conventional spacecraft propulsion or ion propulsion is employed, entering orbit requires accompanying the destination on its own orbit around the sun. This intriguing challenge was addressed in part in February 2007. In February 2013, we considered another aspect of what is involved in climbing the solar system hill, with the sun at the bottom, Earth partway up, and the asteroid belt even higher. We saw that Dawn needs to ascend that hill, but it is not sufficient simply to reach the elevation of each target nor even to travel at the same speed as each target; the explorer also needs to travel in the same direction. Probes that leave Earth to orbit other solar system bodies traverse outward from (or inward toward) the sun, but then need to turn in order to move along with the body they will orbit, and that is difficult.

Those of you who have traveled around the solar system before are familiar with the routine of dropping into orbit. The spacecraft approaches its destination at very high velocity and fires its powerful engine for some minutes or perhaps even about an hour, by the end of which it is traveling slowly enough that the planet's gravity can hold it in orbit and carry it around the sun. These exciting events may range from around 1,300 to 3,400 mph (0.6 to 1.5 kilometers per second). With ten thousand times less thrust than a typical propulsion system on an interplanetary spacecraft, Dawn could never accomplish such a rapid maneuver. As it turns out, however, it doesn't have to.

Dawn's method of getting into orbit is quite different, and the key is expressed in an attribute of ion propulsion that has been referred to 63 times (trust or verify; it's your choice) before in these logs: it is gentle. (This example shows just how gentle the acceleration is.) With the gradual trajectory modifications inherent in ion propulsion, sharp changes in direction and speed are replaced by smooth, gentle curves. The thrust profiles for Dawn's long interplanetary flights are devoted to the gradual reshaping of its orbit around the sun so that by the time it is in the vicinity of its target, its orbit is nearly the same as that of the target. Rather than hurtling toward Vesta or Ceres, Dawn approaches with grace and elegance. Only a small trajectory adjustment is needed to let its new partner's gravity capture it, so even that gentle ion thrust will be quite sufficient to let the craft slip into orbit. With only a nudge, it transitions from its large, slow spiral away from the sun to an inward spiral centered around its new gravitational master.

To get into orbit, a spacecraft has to match speed, direction and location with its target. A mission with conventional propulsion first gets to the location and then, using the planet's gravity and its own fuel-guzzling propulsion system, very rapidly achieves the required speed and direction. By spiraling outward from the sun, first to the orbit of Vesta and now to Ceres, Dawn works on its speed, direction and location all at the same time, so they all gradually reach the needed values at just the right time.

To illustrate this facet of the difference between how the different systems are applied to arrive in orbit, let's imagine you want to drive your car next to another traveling west at 60 mph (100 kilometers per hour). The analogy with the conventional technology would be similar to speeding north toward an intersection where you know the other car will be. You arrive there at the same time and then execute a screeching, whiplash-inducing left turn at the last moment using the brakes, steering wheel, accelerator and adrenaline. When you drive an ion propelled car (with 10 times higher fuel efficiency), you take an entirely different path from the start, one more like a long, curving entrance ramp to a highway. As you enter the ramp, you slowly (perhaps even gently) build speed. You approach the highway gradually, and by the time you have reached the far end of the ramp, your car is traveling at the same speed and in the same direction as the other car. Of course, to ensure you are there when the other car is, the timing is very different from the first method, but the sophisticated techniques of orbital navigation are up to the task.

In March or April 2015, as the probe follows its approach trajectory to Ceres, their paths will be so similar they will be racing around the sun at nearly the same speed (38,500 mph, or 17.2 kilometers per second) and in the same direction. But what matters is their relative velocity. When at a range of 30,000 miles (48,000 kilometers), the spacecraft will be closing in on its destination at less than 85 mph (37 meters per second). The combination of distance and velocity will allow Ceres to take Dawn in its grasp. The spacecraft will not even notice the difference, but it will be in orbit around its second and final celestial target, even as it continues ion thrusting to spiral to its first planned orbital altitude two and a half weeks later.

Unlike missions that use conventional chemical propulsion, there is no sudden change on the spacecraft and no nail-biting on Earth. If you were in space watching the action, you probably would be hungry, cold and hypoxic, but you would not notice anything unusual about the scene as Ceres smoothly and tenderly takes Dawn into an invisible gravitational embrace.

If instead of being in deep space, you had been in Dawn mission control watching the action when the spacecraft entered orbit around Vesta in July 2011 you would have been in the dark and all alone (until JPL Security arrived to escort you away). Your correspondent was out dancing, and other members of the team were engaged in activities similarly unrelated to controlling a probe hundreds of times farther away than the moon. There was no need to have radio contact with the reliable spaceship. It had already been thrusting for 70 percent of its time in space, so it was performing a very familiar function. It should be no different at Ceres (although the dance program may not be exactly the same). When Dawn enters orbit, no one is tense or anxious; rather, all the drama is in the promise of the spectacular discoveries in exploring uncharted worlds, the rewards of new knowledge, and the thrill of knowing that humankind is reaching far, far from home in a grand effort to know the cosmos.

Dawn is 16 million miles (26 million kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.05 AU (191 million miles, or 307 million kilometers) from Earth, or 855 times as far as the moon and 2.08 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 34 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
2:00 p.m. PST January 31, 2014


  • Marc Rayman

NASA Dawn spacecraft between its targets, Vesta and Ceres

Dear Clairvoydawnts,

Now more than halfway through its journey from protoplanet Vesta to dwarf planet Ceres, Dawn is continuing to use its advanced ion propulsion system to reshape its orbit around the sun. Now that the ship is closer to the uncharted shores ahead than the lands it unveiled astern, we will begin looking at the plans for exploring another alien world. In seven logs from now through August, we will discuss how the veteran adventurer will accomplish its exciting mission at Ceres. By the time it arrives early in 2015 at the largest object between Mars and Jupiter, readers will be ready to share not only in the drama of discovery but also in the thrill of an ambitious undertaking far, far from Earth.

Mission planners separate this deep-space expedition into phases. Following the "launch phase" was the 80-day "checkout phase". The "interplanetary cruise phase" is the longest. It began on December 17, 2007, and continued to the "Vesta phase," which extended from May 3, 2011, to Sept. 4, 2012. We are back in the interplanetary cruise phase again and will be until the "Ceres phase" begins in 2015. (Other phases may occur simultaneously with those phases, such as the "oh man, this is so cool phase," the "we should devise a clever name for this phase phase," and the "lunch phase.") Because the tasks at Vesta and Ceres are so complex and diverse, they are further divided into sub-phases. The phases at Ceres will be very similar to those at Vesta, even though the two bodies are entirely different.

In this log, we will describe the Ceres "approach phase." The objectives of approach are to get the explorer into orbit and to attain a preliminary look at the mysterious orb, both to satisfy our eagerness for a glimpse of a new and exotic world and to obtain data that will be helpful in refining details of the subsequent in-depth investigations. The phase will start in January 2015 when Dawn is about 400,000 miles (640,000 kilometers) from Ceres. It will conclude in April when the spacecraft has completed the ion thrusting necessary to maneuver into the first orbit from which it will conduct intensive observations, at an altitude of about 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). For a reason to be revealed below, that orbit is known by the catchy cognomen RC3.

(Previews for the Vesta approach phase were presented in March 2010 and May 2011, and the accounts of its actual execution are in logs from June, July, and August 2011. Future space historians should note that the differing phase boundaries at Vesta are no more than a matter of semantics. At Vesta, RC3 was described as being part of the approach phase. For Ceres, RC3 is its own distinct phase. The reasons for the difference in terminology are not only unimportant, they aren't even interesting.)

The tremendous maneuverability provided by Dawn's uniquely capable ion propulsion system means that the exact dates for events in the approach phase likely will change between now and then. So for those of you in 2015 following a link back to this log to see what the approach plan has been, we offer both the reminder that the estimated dates here might shift by a week or so and a welcome as you visit us here in the past. We look forward to meeting you (or even being you) when we arrive in the future.

Most of the approach phase will be devoted to ion thrusting, making the final adjustments to Dawn's orbit around the sun so that Ceres's gravity will gently take hold of the emissary from distant Earth. Next month we will explain more about the unusual nature of the gradual entry into orbit, which will occur on about March 25, 2015.

Starting in early February 2015, Dawn will suspend thrusting occasionally to point its camera at Ceres. The first time will be on Feb. 2, when they are 260,000 miles (420,000 kilometers) apart. To the camera's eye, designed principally for mapping from a close orbit and not for long-range observations, Ceres will appear quite small, only about 24 pixels across. But these pictures of a fuzzy little patch will be invaluable for our celestial navigators. Such "optical navigation" images will show the location of Ceres with respect to background stars, thereby helping to pin down where it and the approaching robot are relative to each other. This provides a powerful enhancement to the navigation, which generally relies on radio signals exchanged between Dawn and Earth. Each of the 10 times Dawn observes Ceres during the approach phase will help navigators refine the probe's course, so they can update the ion thrust profile to pilot the ship smoothly to its intended orbit.

Whenever the spacecraft stops to acquire images with the camera, it also will train the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer on Ceres. These early measurements will be helpful for finalizing the instrument parameters to be used for the extensive observations at closer range in subsequent mission phases.

Dawn obtained images more often during the Vesta approach phase than it will on approach to Ceres, and the reason is simple. It has lost two of its four reaction wheels, devices used to help turn or stabilize the craft in the zero-gravity, frictionless conditions of spaceflight. (In full disclosure, the units aren't actually lost. We know precisely where they are. But given that they stopped functioning, they might as well be elsewhere in the universe; they don't do Dawn any good.) Dawn's hominin colleagues at JPL, along with excellent support from Orbital Sciences Corporation, have applied their remarkable creativity, tenacity, and technical acumen to devise a plan that should allow all the original objectives of exploring Ceres to be met regardless of the health of the wheels. One of the many methods that contributed to this surprising resilience was a substantial reduction in the number of turns during all remaining phases of the mission, thus conserving the precious hydrazine propellant used by the small jets of the reaction control system.

When Dawn next peers at Ceres, nine days after the first time, it will be around 180,000 miles (290,000 kilometers) away, and the pictures will be marginally better than the sharpest views ever captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. By the third optical navigation session, on Feb. 21, Ceres will show noticeably more detail.

At the end of February, Dawn will take images and spectra throughout a complete Ceres rotation of just over nine hours, or one Cerean day. During that period, while about 100,000 miles (160,000 kilometers) distant, Dawn's position will not change significantly, so it will be almost as if the spacecraft hovers in place as the dwarf planet pirouettes beneath its watchful eye. Dawn will see most of the surface with a resolution twice as good as what has been achieved with Hubble. (At that point in the curving approach trajectory, the probe will be south of Ceres's equator, so it will not be able to see the high northern latitudes.) This first "rotation characterization," or RC1, not only provides the first (near-complete) look at the surface, but it may also suggest to insightful readers what will occur during the RC3 orbit phase.

There will be six more imaging sessions before the end of the approach phase, with Ceres growing larger in the camera's view each time. When the second complete rotation characterization, RC2, is conducted on March 16, the resolution will be four times better than Hubble's pictures. The last photos, to be collected on March 24, will reveal features seven times smaller than could be discerned with the powerful space observatory.

The approach imaging sessions will be used to accomplish even more than navigating, providing initial characterizations of the mysterious world, and whetting our appetites for more. Six of the opportunities also will include searches for moons of Ceres. Astronomers have not found moons of this dwarf planet in previous attempts, but Dawn's unique vantage point would allow it to discover smaller ones than would have been detectable in previous attempts.

When the approach phase ends, Dawn will be circling its new home, held in orbit by the massive body's gravitational grip and ready to begin more detailed studies. By then, however, the pictures and other data it will have returned will already have taught Earthlings a great deal about that enigmatic place. Ceres has been observed from Earth for more than two centuries, having first been spotted on January 1, 1801, but it has never appeared as much more than an indistinct blob amidst the stars. Soon a probe dispatched by the insatiably curious creatures on that faraway planet will take up residence there to uncover some of the secrets it has held since the dawn of the solar system. We don't have long to wait!

Dawn is 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) from Vesta and 19 million miles (31 million kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.42 AU (225 million miles, or 362 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,015 times as far as the moon and 2.46 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 40 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc Rayman
3:00 p.m. PST December 31, 2013

› Read more entries from Marc Rayman's Dawn Journal


  • Marc Rayman

Dawn spacecraft's orbits

Dear Hand-Me-Dawns,

Gliding smoothly through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn continues to make good progress on its ambitious mission of exploration. It is patiently but persistently pursuing Ceres, the second destination on its interplanetary itinerary.

Protoplanets Ceres and Vesta, the two most massive residents of the asteroid belt, were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, and they have tantalized astronomers and others curious about the nature of the universe ever since. (Indeed, Ceres was the first dwarf planet discovered, having been found 129 years before Pluto.) They have waited patiently for a visitor from Earth since the dawn of the solar system. Dawn's objective is to turn these uncharted orbs from tiny smudges of light amidst the stars into richly detailed places. It succeeded spectacularly at Vesta in 2011 - 2012, and it remains on course and on schedule for doing so at Ceres in 2015.

Next month, the adventurer will pass an invisible milestone on its celestial journey. On Dec. 27, it will be equidistant from these behemoths of the asteroid belt as all three follow their own independent heliocentric paths. The spacecraft will be 0.21 AU (19.4 million miles, or 31.3 million kilometers) away from each world, the one already visited and the one yet to be reached. And as the indefatigable ship sails on the cosmic seas with its sights set on Ceres, our anticipation for glimpsing the alien landscape ahead grows and grows, while the now-familiar scenery of Vesta shrinks into the distance, fading over the horizon.

The next day, Dawn will be equidistant from two other solar system bodies, both of which have been known (to our human readers, at least) for somewhat longer than Ceres and Vesta have. On Dec. 28, our celestial ambassador will be 2.46 AU (229 million miles, or 368 million kilometers) from Earth and the sun. (We cannot specify in which century either of them was discovered.)

Its complex route through the solar system has already taken the spacecraft farther from each of these bodies before. In the current phase of the mission, it is receding from the sun again, climbing the solar system hill from Vesta to Ceres. (It approached the sun in late 2012 and 2013 as part of the strategy for arriving at Ceres's orbit when Ceres itself was there.) Having attained its greatest distance from Earth for the year in August, the spacecraft is temporarily getting closer to its planet of origin. (More precisely, as we discussed then, Earth is currently moving toward Dawn, because Earth travels faster in its solar orbit than Dawn does in its much more remote orbit.)

Dawn will reach two more impressive milestones in December, although neither pertains to its location. Soon the craft will surpass four years of ion thrust. While most spacecraft rely on conventional propulsion and hence coast most of the time (just as planets, moons, and asteroids do), Dawn's mission would be impossible if it did that. In order to orbit and explore two distant destinations, the only terrestrial probe ever to attempt such a feat, it must accomplish a great deal of maneuvering. It spends the majority of its time using its uniquely efficient and capable ion propulsion system, constantly putting a gentle pressure on its trajectory to gradually reshape it. Although the spacecraft has already accumulated far more time in powered flight than any other mission, it still has a great deal more ahead.

And in December, that thrusting will push the craft's speedometer past an extraordinary 20,000 mph (8.94 kilometers per second). (As we have seen in many previous logs, such as this one, this measure of the speed does not represent the actual spacecraft velocity. Nevertheless, it is a useful metric that avoids the complicating effects of orbital mechanics.) That is more than twice the previous record for propulsive velocity change set by Deep Space 1, the first interplanetary mission to use ion propulsion.

Dawn spends most of its time emitting a lovely blue-green beam of high-velocity xenon ions to propel itself. As foretold in the prophecy commonly known as the October log, however, we are now in one of just two periods of the long mission in which coasting is better for the trajectory than thrusting. Mission controllers took advantage of this time to instruct the robot to perform some special activities that would have been less convenient during routine ion thrusting. The reliable ship completed all of them flawlessly.

For more than 27 hours on Nov. 12 and 13, Dawn operated in a mode that had not even been conceived of when it was designed and built. It controlled its orientation in the frictionless, zero-gravity conditions of spaceflight using a scheme that was developed long after it left Earth. This "hybrid" control method operated perfectly, validating the extensive work engineers have invested in it and verifying its readiness for use at Ceres.

When it embarked on its bold journey more than six years ago, the ship was outfitted with four reaction wheels. By electrically changing the speed at which these gyroscope-like devices rotate, the probe can turn or stabilize itself. It generally used three at a time, with a fourth kept in reserve. For such a long and complex expedition, extending to well over one million times farther from Earth than the International Space Station, backup systems are essential.

One of the wheels experienced increased friction in June 2010, but the mission continued with the other three. A second met the same fate in August 2012, as Dawn was climbing away from Vesta. Other spacecraft have encountered similar issues with their reaction wheels as well, and the consequences can be dire.

We have described the operations team's swift and productive responses to the regrettable behavior of the reaction wheels in a number of logs (see, as one example, here). As soon as the first wheel faltered, JPL and Orbital Sciences Corporation began working on a method to operate with fewer than three in case another one had difficulty. They developed software to operate in a hybrid mode of two wheels plus the small hydrazine-powered jets of the reaction control system and installed it in the craft's main computer in April 2011 so it would be available at Vesta if needed.

Given the problems with reaction wheels on Dawn and other spacecraft, engineers do not have high confidence that the two remaining units will operate for long (although it certainly is possible they will). Thanks to their remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness, the team has devised a detailed plan that should allow Dawn to complete its extraordinary mission using only the hydrazine thrusters, achieving all of its objectives in exploring Ceres regardless of the condition of its wheels. (Note that it is not even obvious that doing so is possible, but then again, it isn't obvious that sending probes so far from our home planet is possible either. Part of the thrill of a solar system adventure is overcoming the extremely daunting challenges.) So now, hybrid control would provide an enhancement, extending the supply of precious hydrazine propellant and giving the spacecraft the opportunity to operate even longer at Ceres than it would without the two functioning wheels. When the hydrazine is exhausted, the mission will conclude.

Dawn will use hybrid control only in its lowest altitude orbits at Ceres, the final phase of the mission. (Beginning in December and continuing in 2014, we will describe all phases of the Ceres plan in detail.) Hybrid control will be called upon to perform three kinds of tasks for the spacecraft: train the suite of sophisticated sensors at the mysterious world beneath it, point the main antenna to distant Earth to transmit its findings and receive updated instructions, and rotate from one orientation to another. The innovative system has now unerringly demonstrated its capability to accomplish all three by executing exactly those functions earlier this month.

The confirmation that hybrid control works as intended is not the only task Dawn is carrying out during this coasting period. All of its scientific instruments (including even the backup camera) are being powered on and given thorough health checks, verifying that they remain fully functional and ready to reveal Ceres's secrets. Engineers also conducted some tests with the ion engine that has operated the longest of the three to confirm expectations of how it will perform at Ceres.

On Dec. 9, Dawn's four-week coast period will end. Once again it will turn to point an ion engine in the direction needed to push forward to its rendezvous with the distant and exotic world ahead. As the probe nears and then passes the halfway point on its remarkable journey from Vesta to Ceres, it is pulled by forces even more powerful than ion propulsion: the attraction of discovery, the lure of the unknown, and the draw of tremendous new insights and profound new understandings to be gained in a daring adventure far, far from home.

Dawn is 18 million miles (29 million kilometers) from Vesta and 22 million miles (35 million kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.78 AU (258 million miles, or 415 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,125 times as far as the moon and 2.82 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 46 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
10:00 p.m. PST November 30, 2013


  • Marc Rayman

The Dawn spacecraft's orbits

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.


  • Marc Rayman

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft

Dear Dawnniversaries,

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
Earth's orbit 0.98 1.02 0.0°
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°
Vesta's orbit 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°
Ceres's orbit 2.56 2.98 10.6°


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


  • Marc Rayman

The Dawn spacecraft's orbits

Dear Antecedawnts,

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


  • Marc Rayman

Dawn's solar arrays are folded to fit inside the nose cone in preparation for launch

Dear Megalodawniacs,

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


  • Marc Rayman

Mosaic of Dawn's images of asteroid Vesta

Ion Propulsion System Hot Fire Test for Deep Space 1

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


  • Marc Rayman

Mosaic of Dawn's images of asteroid Vesta

Dear Confidawnts,

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.


  • Marc Rayman