The excitement is building as NASA’s innovative Dawn spacecraft closes in on its first protoplanetary target, the giant asteroid Vesta, with its camera eyes now wide open. The probe is on target to become the first spacecraft from Earth to orbit a body in the main asteroid belt and is set to arrive about four months from now in late July 2011.
Vesta is the second most massive object in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter (map below). Since it is also one of the oldest bodies in our Solar System, scientists are eager to study it and search for clues about the formation and early history of the solar system. Dawn will spend about a year orbiting Vesta. Then it will fire its revolutionay ion thrusters and depart for Ceres, the largest asteroid in our solar system.
Dawn is equipped with three science instruments to photograph and investigate the surface mineralogy and elemental composition of the asteroid. The instruments were provided by the US, Germany and Italy. The spacecraft has just awoken from a six month hibernation phase. All three science instruments have been powered up and reactivated.
Dawn will image about 80 percent of Vesta’s surface at muliple angles with the onboard framing cameras to generate topographical maps. During the year in orbit, the probe will adjust its orbit and map the protoplanet at three different and decreasing altitudes between 650 and 200 kilometers, and thus increasing resolution. The cameras were provided and funded by Germany.
To prepare for the imaging campaign, mission planners from the US and Germany conducted a practice exercise to simulate the mission as though they were mapping Vesta. The effort was coordinated among the science and engineering teams at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Institute of Planetary Research of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin and the Planetary Science Institute in Tuscon, Ariz.
“We won’t know what Vesta really looks like until Dawn gets there,” said Carol Raymond in a NASA statement. Raymond is Dawn’s deputy principal investigator, based at JPL, who helped orchestrate the activity. “But we needed a way to make sure our imaging plans would give us the best results possible. The products have proven that Dawn’s mapping techniques will reveal a detailed view of this world that we’ve never seen up close before.”
Two teams worked independently and used different techniques to derive the topographical maps from the available data sets. The final results showed only minor differences in spatial resolution and height accuracy.
Using the best available observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and ground based telescopes and computer modeling techniques, they created maps of still images and a rotating animation (below) showing their best guess as to what Vesta’s surface actually looks like. The maps include dimples, bulges and craters based on the accumulated data to simulate topography and thus give a sense of Virtual Vesta in three dimensions (3 D).
“Working through this exercise, the mission planners and the scientists learned that we could improve the overall accuracy of the topographic reconstruction, using a somewhat different observation geometry,” said Nick Mastrodemo, Dawn’s optical navigation lead at JPL. “Since then, Dawn science planners have worked to tweak the plans to implement the lessons of the exercise.”
Of course no one will know how close these educated guesses come to matching reality until Dawn arrives at Vesta.
The framing camera system consists of two identical cameras developed and built by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin.
“The camera system is working flawlessly. The dry run was a complete success,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera at the Max Planck Institute in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany.
Since the probe came out of hibernation, the mechanical and electrical components were checked out in mid March and found to be in excellent health and the software was updated.
Dawn is a mission of many firsts.
The spacecraft is NASA’s first mission specifically to the Asteroid Belt. It will become the first mission to orbit two solar system bodies.
The revolutionary Dawn mission is powered by exotic ion propulsion which is vastly more efficient than chemical propulsion thrusters. Indeed the ability to orbit two bodies in one mission is only enabled via the use of the ion engines fueled by xenon gas.
Vesta and Ceres are very different worlds that orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Vesta is rocky and may have undergone volcanism whereas Ceres is icy and may even harbor a subsurface ocean conducive to life.
Dawn will be able to comparatively investigate both celestial bodies with the same set of science instruments and try to unlock the mysteries of the beginnings of our solar system and why they are so different.