Real Life For Solar System Probes

As we follow our space probes this spring, we are reminded how much we are all spoiled by Hollywood spaceships that not only make cool “whoosh” sounds, but magically pop between interesting places in minutes without spending any boring time getting there.

Unfortunately, real space travel is much slower and trickier, and robot spacecraft aren’t as magical as seen on TV. In the past few months, we have seen NASA’s Dawn probe arrive at Ceres and ESA’s Rosetta at comet 67P/CG, both of which took a decade to get there. And even now that they have “arrived”, things are still “exotic” by Earthbound standards.

Dawn’s slow looping progress…

Dawn arrived at Ceres last month, achieving gravitational capture on 6 March. But this is a long, slow mission, and the spacecraft has been slowly looping around in a long spiral in, to a target 15KM circular orbit in a few weeks. Furthermore, it has been on the dark side of Ceres which, out there, is really, really dark! So no imagery until the mapping orbit is achieved.

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


Marc Rayman gives us a ton of cool information about real life out there in Ceres orbit: reconfiguring the spacecraft from travel to observation mode, dealing with the loss of 2 of 4 maneuvering flywheels, calibrating the camera and so on.

Now that Dawn is there, it will begin a long campaign of observations, spiraling in to successively closer orbits as the months go by. And this will be the end of the mission: she will fade out and someday fall onto Ceres.

Rosetta’s navigation woes…

The Rosetta spacecraft has been swooping in for close passes to comet 67P/CG, which is heating up and developing an atmosphere as the ice steams off. This means that these passes are actually quite dangerous for the deep space adapted Rosetta: she’s not intended to operate in an atmosphere.

Example of Rosetta’s recent flyby trajectories at Comet 67P/C-G. Credit: ESA.

The mission has reported on problems they have had, which are kind of interesting. The big problem has been that the automated star finder system has been confused by all the ‘bright spots’ from the escaping gasses. The star finders continuous watch the sky for familiar groups of stars, which are used to keep the spacecraft on course and oriented correctly. The latter involves, critically, pointing the antenna at Earth.

Apparently the last pass encounters so many false “sightings” that the star finders got lost and the antenna skewed away from target Earth. The signal was lost for a while and data could not be transmitted.

The spacecraft recovered, though not before entering a “safe mode” partial shutdown.

(“Safe mode” sounds warm and cuddly to me, but I know that space scientists hate safe modes—they are what happens when all else has failed.)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always be awed by guide star astrogation—it is so elegant and so universal. The spacecraft knows exactly where everything is….

And for that matter, orienting spacecraft with flywheels just blows my mind–again, so elegant, so flat out Newtonian.


Space Saturday

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