Cool NASA Spacecraft Approaches Ceres

What a year for planetary exploration! ESA’s Rosetta diving into the atmosphere of a comet, NASA’s fly by of Pluto, and now NASA’s “Dawn” spacecraft will reach Ceres in the next month.

After visiting Vesta for months on its way out in 2012, the Dawn spacecraft is approaching Ceres. It will spiral in towards the asteroid/mini planet during March, and reach a close orbit (375 km) and return visible and IR imagery and gamma ray data starting in April.

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

This exploration is a groundbreaking use of an ion drive, which has enabled unprecedented periods of (low) thrust, many years worth. It also made it possible to reach Vesta, maneuver into orbit, and then depart orbit and reach Ceres, where it will orbit. All on one voyage!

These planetary missions share several very impressive features. They are long time scales (a decade and more), which require the spacecraft to hibernate for long times and then wake up. In deep, deep cold, far, far from home. Awesome!

And they are semi-autonomous systems, working beyond any hope of human assistance. The fact that the software actually still works in this situation is just plain miraculous.

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