The Dawn spacecraft – which is on a course to study the asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres – has taken up permanent residence in the asteroid belt as of November 13th. Dawn is officially the first human-made object to become a part of the asteroid belt, which is sandwiched between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.Dawn didn’t move in without checking the place out first, though; this is the second visit for the craft, which remained there for 40 days in June of 2008. The lower boundary of the asteroids belt is defined as the furthest Mars gets away from the Sun during its orbit – 249,230,000 kilometers, or 154,864,000 miles.
Dawn, which was launched in September 2007, is on an eight-year, 4.9-billion kilometer (3-billion mile) journey to study the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. By studying these members of the asteroid belt, NASA scientists hope to learn more about the formation of our Solar System. Because Vesta and Ceres are some of the largest members of the ring of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, they are the most intact from when they were formed, and should act as a ‘time capsule’ to preserve information about what the early Solar System was like.
Dawn got a gravity assist from Mars in February of 2009, which propelled it past the planet and into the asteroid belt.
The spacecraft is expected to visit Vesta in August of 2011. Vesta is believed to be the source of most of the asteroid-origin meteorites that fall to ground here on Earth, and further study of the asteroid should confirm this.
In May of 2012, Dawn will make its way to Ceres, which lies further out in the asteroid belt. It will arrive there in July of 2015, where it will spend the remainder of its mission studying the icy dwarf planet, which may even have a tenuous atmosphere.
If you want to keep tabs on Dawn in its new home, the mission web site has a tool updated hourly, found here, which allows you to see where Dawn is right now. The tool includes simulated views of the Earth, Mars, Sun and Vesta from the vantage point of the spacecraft.