The feat has never been accomplished before and next week’s departure for the Dawn spacecraft from Vesta will be monumental. Dawn is on track to become the first probe to orbit and study two distant solar system destinations. The spacecraft is scheduled to leave the giant asteroid Vesta on Sept. 4 PDT (Sept. 5 EDT) to start its two-and-a-half-year journey to the dwarf planet Ceres.
“Thrust is engaged, and we are now climbing away from Vesta atop a blue-green pillar of xenon ions,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director. “We are feeling somewhat wistful about concluding a fantastically productive and exciting exploration of Vesta, but now have our sights set on dwarf planet Ceres.
In the video above, the Dawn team looks back at the highlights of the year-plus stay in orbit around Vesta. Dawn’s orbit provided close-up views of Vesta, revealing unprecedented detail about the giant asteroid. The mission revealed that Vesta completely melted in the past, forming a layered body with an iron core. The spacecraft also revealed the scarring from titanic collisions Vesta suffered in its southern hemisphere, surviving not one but two colossal impacts in the last two billion years. Without Dawn, scientists would not have known about the dramatic troughs sculpted around Vesta, which are ripples from the two south polar impacts.
“We went to Vesta to fill in the blanks of our knowledge about the early history of our solar system,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator, based at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). “Dawn has filled in those pages, and more, revealing to us how special Vesta is as a survivor from the earliest days of the solar system. We can now say with certainty that Vesta resembles a small planet more closely than a typical asteroid.”
Dawn arrived at Vesta in July 2011 and will reach Ceres in early 2015. Dawn’s targets represent two icons of the asteroid belt that have been witness to much of our solar system’s history.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft arrived at the giant asteroid Vesta on July 15, 2011 PDT (July 16, 2011 EDT) and is set to depart on Sept. 4, 2012 PDT (Sept. 5 EDT). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
To make its escape from Vesta, the spacecraft will spiral away as gently as it arrived, using a special, hyper-efficient system called ion propulsion. Dawn’s ion propulsion system uses electricity to ionize xenon to generate thrust. The 12-inch-wide ion thrusters provide less power than conventional engines, but can maintain thrust for months at a time.
For a second time, we wish Dawn Bon Voyage!
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.