On to Ceres: Dawn Spacecraft Ready to Say Farewell to Asteroid Vesta

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!

Source: JPL

Dawn’s Vestan Endeavour Exceptionally Exciting near End of Year-Long Super Science Survey

Image Caption: Divalia Fossa equatorial trough at Vesta pictured in side by side images showing apparent brightness and topography. The trough encircles most of Vesta and is located just south of the equator. It is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) wide. Rubria and Occia craters straddle Divalia Fossa. The image was snapped on Oct 16, 2011 from an altitude of 700 km (435 mi) from the HAMO mapping orbit. Image Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

“NASA’s Dawn mission to Asteroid Vesta is going exceptionally well”, Dr. Marc Rayman, the mission’s Chief Engineer, told Universe Today in an exclusive interview as the revolutionary spacecraft nears the end of its more than 1 year long super science survey orbiting the giant space rock.

“The Dawn mission is not only going better than we had expected but even better than we had hoped.”

Dawn is Earth’s first mission ever to orbit and explore Vesta up close.

“We have acquired so much more data than we had planned even in late 2011! We have conducted a tremendous exploration of Vesta – the second most massive body between Mars and Jupiter, a giant of the main asteroid belt.”

“Now we are in our second high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO2), which is the final intensive campaign of the Vesta mission,” Rayman told me.

Image Caption: Dawn Orbiting Vesta above the “Snowman” craters. This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta above the Snowman craters. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn’s framing cameras. Dawn is an international collaboration of the US, Germany and Italy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Indeed Dawn’s science and maneuvering endeavour’s at Vesta have proceeded so flawlessly that NASA has granted the science team a bonus of 40 days additional time in orbit split between the lower and higher science orbits known as LAMO and HAMO or the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit and the High Altitude Mapping Orbit respectively.

“Our original Vesta departure date was July 17, and now it is about August 26.” Rayman explained.

The bonus time at LAMO has already been completed. Now the team is about to begin the bonus time at HAMO – consisting of two additional mapping cycles beyond the four originally planned.

Each mapping cycle in HAMO2 consists of 10 orbits. Each orbit is about 12.5 hours.

“On July 14, we will complete mapping cycle 4 and begin 5 (of 6). On July 25 we will leave HAMO2 and escape from orbit on August 26. We will stop thrusting several times before escape to take more neat pictures, mostly of the northern hemisphere,” Rayman told me.

“As Dawn revolves, Vesta rotates on its axis beneath it, turning once every 5.3 hours.”

When Dawn arrived in orbit at Vesta in July 2011 the northern polar region was in darkness as the southern hemisphere basked in summer’s glow. Now as Dawn departs Vesta in August, virtually all of the previously unseen and unphotographed northern polar region is illuminated and will be mapped in exquisite detail.

Coincidentally on July 13/14 as HAMO2 Cycle 4 ends, I’ll be presenting a free public lecture about Dawn and NASA’s Planetary and Human Spaceflight programs at the Adirondack Public Observatory.

Image Caption: Asteroid Vesta and Mysterious Equatorial Grooves – from Dawn Orbiter. This full view of the giant asteroid Vesta was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on July 24, 2011, at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). This view shows impact craters of various sizes and mysterious grooves parallel to the equator. The resolution of this image is about 500 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Why has Dawn been granted an extended mission ?

“Dawn has gone so well that we had consumed not even one day of our 40 days of operations margin,” Rayman stated .

“That allowed us to spend more time in LAMO. We had had some unexpected events to be sure, but we managed to deal with all of them so expeditiously that the entire margin remained intact. Then we received the (entirely unrelated) 40 day extension, which allowed us to leave Vesta later. That came about because of our being able to shorten the flight from Vesta to Ceres, so we could still reach Ceres on schedule in 2015.”

“That 40 days allowed us to spend still ~ 30 more days in LAMO and increase HAMO2 by 10 days to a total of six cycles. We got still more time by finding ways to make the trip from HAMO2 to escape a little more efficiently, and that’s what allowed HAMO2 to be even longer, with the additional eight days of VIR-only observations I described in my most recent Dawn Journal.”

“The summary is that every investigation has been more productive than we could have imagined, and because the exploration of Vesta has gone so well, we have been able to apply our unused margin to get even more out of the mission. It is very very gratifying and exciting.”

So we have a few more weeks to enjoy the wondrous sights of Vesta before Dawn fires up her revolutionary ion thrusters to escape the gravitational tug of Vesta and head off to the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest asteroid in the main belt of our Solar System – and which some have speculated may hold vast caches of water and perhaps even liquid oceans suitable for sustaining life.

Ken Kremer

July 13/14: Free Public Lectures about NASA’s Mars, Vesta and Planetary Exploration, the Space Shuttle, SpaceX , Orion and more by Ken Kremer at the Adirondack Public Observatory in Tupper Lake, NY.

Vesta’s Amazing Technicolor Surface

A brand new 3-D video map from the Dawn mission provides a unique view of the varied surface of the giant asteroid Vesta. The animation drapes high-resolution false color images over a 3-D model of the Vesta terrain constructed from Dawn’s observations. This visualization enables a detailed view of the variation in the material properties of Vesta in the context of its topography.
Continue reading “Vesta’s Amazing Technicolor Surface”

The Bright and Dark Side of Vesta’s Craters


Bright craters, dark craters… craters shaped like butterflies… they’re all represented here in a panorama made from images acquired by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, currently in orbit around the asteroid Vesta.

I stitched two images together (using a third for gap fill-in) that were originally acquired by Dawn’s framing camera in October 2011 and released last week. Because the angle of sunlight is pretty close to straight-on, there’s not a whole lot of relief in the original images so I bumped that contrast up a bit as well, to help bring out Vesta’s terrain.

The dark crater in the center is Laelia, and it’s surrounded by smaller dark impact craters as well… most notably one that displays dramatic rays of dark material. At top right is the much larger crater Sextilia, which has bright material revealed along its inner rim.

Near the lower left edge, just horizontal from Laelia, is the butterfly-shaped Helena crater. It shows both bright and dark material, the latter of which can be seen slumping into the crater as well as outward from its rim. Helena is approximately 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. (There’s a scale at the lower right showing a 10-km / 6.2-mile-wide span.)

The images were acquired during the HAMO (high-altitude mapping orbit) phase of the mission.

On Thursday, May 10, NASA will host a news conference at 11 a.m. PDT (2 p.m. EDT) to present a new analysis of the giant asteroid Vesta using data from the agency’s Dawn spacecraft. The event will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website. For streaming video, downlink and scheduling information visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv.

The event will also be streamed live on Ustream with a moderated chat available at http://www.ustream.com/nasajpl2. Questions may also be asked via Twitter using the hashtag #asknasa.The event will be held at NASA Headquarters in Washington, broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website. For NASA TV streaming video, downlink and scheduling information, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv.

Image credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA. Edited by J. Major.

This artist's concept shows NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Dawn gets Big Science Boost at Best Vesta Mapping Altitude


NASA’s Dawn mission is getting a whopping boost in science observing time at the closest orbit around Asteroid Vesta as the probe passes the midway point of its 1 year long survey of the colossal space rock. And the team informs Universe Today that the data so far have surpassed all expectations and they are very excited !

Dawn’s bonus study time amounts to an additional 40 days circling Vesta at the highest resolution altitude for scientific measurements. That translates to a more than 50 percent increase beyond the originally planned length of 70 days at what is dubbed the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit, or LAMO.

“We are truly thrilled to be able to spend more time observing Vesta from low altitude,” Dr. Marc Rayman told Universe Today in an exclusive interview. Rayman is Dawn’s Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

“It is very exciting indeed to obtain such a close-up look at a world that even a year ago was still just a fuzzy blob.”

The big extension for a once-in-a-lifetime shot at up close science was all enabled owing to the hard work of the international science team in diligently handling any anomalies along the pathway through interplanetary space and since Dawn achieved orbit in July 2011, as well as to the innovative engineering of the spacecraft’s design and its revolutionary ion propulsion system.

“This is a reflection of how well all of our work at Vesta has gone from the beginning of the approach phase in May 2011,” Rayman told me.

Simulated view of Vesta from Dawn in LAMO, low altitude mapping orbit - March, 6 2012
Credit: Gregory J. Whiffen, JPL

Dawn’s initially projected 10 week long science campaign at LAMO began on Dec. 12, 2011 at an average distance of 210 kilometers (130 miles) from the protoplanet and was expected to conclude on Feb. 20, 2012 under the original timeline. Thereafter it would start spiraling back out to the High Altitude Mapping Orbit, known as HAMO, approximately 680 kilometers above the surface.

“With the additional 40 days it means we are now scheduled to leave LAMO on April 4. That’s when we begin ion thrusting for the transfer to HAMO2,” Rayman stated.

And the observations to date at LAMO have already vastly surpassed all hopes – using all three of the onboard science instruments provided by the US, Germany and Italy.

“Dawn’s productivity certainly is exceeding what we had expected,” exclaimed Rayman.

“We have acquired more than 7500 LAMO pictures from the Framing Camera and more than 1 million LAMO VIR (Visible and Infrared) spectra which afford scientists a much more detailed view of Vesta than had been planned with the survey orbit and the high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO). It would have been really neat just to have acquired even only a few of these close-up observations, but we have a great bounty!”

“Roughly around half of Vesta’s surface has been imaged at LAMO.”

Dawn mosaic of Visible and Infrared spectrometer (VIR) data of Vesta
This mosaic shows the location of the data acquired by VIR (visible and infrared spectrometer) during the HAMO (high-altitude mapping orbit) phase of the Dawn mission from August to October 2011. Dawn is now making the same observations at the now extended LAMO (low-altitude mapping orbit) phase of the Dawn mission from December 2011 to April 2012. VIR can image Vesta in a number of different wavelengths of light, ranging from the visible to the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. This mosaic shows the images taken at a wavelength of 550 nanometers, which is in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. During HAMO VIR obtained more than 4.6 million spectra of Vesta. It is clear from this image that the VIR observations are widely distributed across Vesta, which results in a global view of the spectral properties of Vesta’s surface. This image shows Vesta’s southern hemisphere (lower part of the image) and equatorial regions (upper part of the image). NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained these VIR images with its visible and infrared spectrometer in September and October 2011. The distance to the surface of Vesta is around 700 kilometers (435 miles) and the average image resolution is 170 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ ASI/ INAF/ IAPS

The bonus time at LAMO will now be effectively used to help fill in the gaps in surface coverage utilizing all 3 science instruments. Therefore perhaps an additional 20% to 25% extra territory will be imaged at the highest possible resolution. Some of this will surely amount to enlarged new coverage and some will be overlapping with prior terrain, which also has enormous research benefits.

“There is real value even in seeing the same part of the surface multiple times, because the illumination may be different. In addition, it helps for building up stereo,” said Rayman.

Researchers will deduce further critical facts about Vesta’s topography, composition, interior, gravity and geologic features with the supplemental measurements.

Successive formation of impact craters on Vesta
This Dawn FC (framing camera) image shows two overlapping impact craters and was taken on Dec. 18,2011 during the LAMO (low-altitude mapping orbit) phase of the mission. The large crater is roughly 20 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter and the smaller crater is roughly 6 kilometers (4 miles) in diameter. The rims of the craters are both reasonably fresh but the larger crater must be older because the smaller crater cuts across the larger crater’s rim. As the smaller crater formed it destroyed a part of the rim of the pre-existing, larger crater. The larger crater’s interior is more densely cratered than the smaller crater, which also suggests that is it older. In the bottom of the image there is some material slumping from rim of the larger crater towards its center. This image with its framing camera on Dec. 18, 2011. This image was taken through the camera’s clear filter. The distance to the surface of Vesta is 260 kilometers (162 miles) and the image has a resolution of about 22 meters (82 feet) per pixel. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

The foremost science goals at LAMO are collection of gamma ray and neutron measurements with the GRaND instrument – which focuses on determining the elemental abundances of Vesta – and collection of information about the structure of the gravitational field. Since GRaND can only operate effectively at low orbit, the extended duration at LAMO takes on further significance.

“Our focus is on acquiring the highest priority science. The pointing of the spacecraft is determined by our primary scientific objectives of collecting GRaND and gravity measurements.”

As Dawn continues orbiting every 4.3 hours around Vesta during LAMO, GRaND is recording measurements of the subatomic particles that emanate from the surface as a result of the continuous bombardment of cosmic rays and reveals the signatures of the elements down to a depth of about 1 meter.

“You can think of GRaND as taking a picture of Vesta but in extremely faint light. That is, the nuclear emissions it detects are extremely weak. So our long time in LAMO is devoted to making a very, very long exposure, albeit in gamma rays and neutrons and not in visible light,” explained Rayman.

Now with the prolonged mission at LAMO the team can gather even more data, amounting to thousands and thousands more pictures, hundreds of thousands of more VIR spectra and ultra long exposures by GRaND.

“HAMO investigations have already produced global coverage of Vesta’s gravity field,” said Sami Asmar, a Dawn co-investigator from JPL. Extended investigations at LAMO will likewise vastly improve the results from the gravity experiment.

Dawn Spacecraft Current Location and Trajectory - March, 6 2012. Credit: Gregory J. Whiffen, JPL

“We always carried 40 days of “margin,” said Rayman, “but no one who was knowledgeable about the myriad challenges of exploring this uncharted world expected we would be able to accomplish all the complicated activities before LAMO without needing to consume some of that margin. So although we recognized that we might get to spend some additional time in LAMO, we certainly did not anticipate it would be so much.”

“As it turned out, although we did have surprises the operations team managed to recover from all of them without using any of those 40 days.”

“This is a wonderful bonus for science,” Rayman concluded.

“We remain on schedule to depart Vesta in July 2012, as planned for the past several years.”

Dawn’s next target is Ceres, the largest asteroid in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter

By Dawn’s Early Light


Sunrise on Vesta highlights the asteroid’s varied surface textures in this image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, released on Monday, Feb. 20. The image was taken on Dec. 18 with Dawn’s Framing Camera (FC).

Just as the low angle of  early morning sunlight casts long shadows on Earth, sunrise on Vesta has the same effect — although on Vesta it’s not trees and buildings that are being illuminated but rather deep craters and chains of pits!

The steep inner wall of a crater is seen at lower right with several landslides visible, its outer ridge cutting a sharp line.

Chains of pits are visible in the center of the view. These features are the result of ejected material from an impact that occurred outside of the image area.

Other lower-profile, likely older craters remain in shadow.

Many of these features would appear much less dramatic with a high angle of illumination, but they really shine brightest in dawn’s light.

See the full image release on the Dawn mission site here.

Image credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

Asteroid Vesta Floats in Space in High Resolution 3-D


The giant Asteroid Vesta literally floats in space in a new high resolution 3-D image of the battered bodies Eastern Hemisphere taken by NASA’s Dawn Asteroid Orbiter.

Haul out your red-cyan 3-D anaglyph glasses and lets go whirling around Vesta and sledding down mountains to greet the alien Snowman! The sights are fabulous !

The Dawn imaging group based at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), in Berlin, Germany and led by team member Ralf Jaumann has released a trio of new high resolution 3-D images that are the most vivid anaglyphs yet published by the international science team.

The lead anaglyph shows the highly varied topography of the Eastern Hemisphere of Vesta and was taken during the final approach phase as Dawn was about 5,200 kilometers (3,200 miles) away and preparing to achieve orbit in July 2011.

The heavily cratered northern region is at top and is only partially illuminated because of Vesta’s tilted angle to the Sun at that time of year. Younger craters are overlain onto many older and more degraded craters. The equatorial region is dominated by the mysterious troughs which encircle most of Vesta and may have formed as a result of a gargantuan gong, eons ago.

The southern hemisphere exhibits fewer craters than in the northern hemisphere. Look closely at the bottom left and you’ll see the huge central mountain complex of the Rheasilvia impact basin visibly protruding out from Vesta’s south polar region.

This next 3-D image shows a close-up of the South Pole Mountain at the center of the Rheasilvia Impact basin otherwise known as the “Mount Everest of Vesta”.

The Mount Everest of Vesta in 3-D
This anaglyph shows the central complex and huge mountain in Vesta’s Rheasilvia impact basin at the South Pole. Does water ice lurk beneath the South Pole ?

The central complex is approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) in diameter and is approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) tall and is therefore about two and a half times taller than Earth’s Mount Everest!

Be sure to take a long look inside the deep craters and hummocky terrain surrounding “Mount Everest”.

A recent study concludes that, in theory, Vesta’s interior is cold enough for water ice to lurk beneath the North and South poles.

Finally lets gaze at the trio of craters that make up the “Snowman” in the 3-D image snapped in August 2011 as Dawn was orbiting at about 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) altitude. The three craters are named Minucia, Marcia and Calpurnia from top to bottom. Their diameters respectively are; 24 kilometers (15 miles), 53 kilometers (33 miles) and 63 kilometers (40 miles).

3-D image of Vesta’s “Snowman” craters
The three craters are named Minucia, Marcia and Calpurnia from top to bottom. They are 24 kilometers (15 miles), 53 kilometers (33 miles) and 63 kilometers (40 miles) in diameter, respectively. Image resolution is about 250 meters (820 feet) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

It is likely that Marcia and Calpurnia formed from the impact of a binary asteroid and that Minucia formed in a later impact. The smooth region around the craters is the ejecta blanket.

Dawn Orbiting Vesta above the “Snowman” craters
This artist's concept shows NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta above the Snowman craters. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn's framing cameras. Dawn is an international collaboration of the US, Germany and Italy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Vesta is the second most massive asteroid in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is 330 miles (530 km) in diameter.

Dawn is the first spacecraft from Earth to visit Vesta. It achieved orbit in July 2011 for a year long mission. Dawn will fire up its ion propulsion thrusters in July 2012 to spiral out of orbit and sail to Ceres, the biggest asteroid of them all !

Vesta and Ceres are also considered to be protoplanets.

Asteroid’s Unusual Light and Dark Crater


Light and dark material spreads outward from a 5-km-wide crater on Vesta in this image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, acquired on October 22, 2011. While craters with differently-toned materials have been previously seen on the asteroid, it is unusual to find one with such a large amount of ejecta of different albedos.

This is a crop of a larger version which was released today on the Dawn website.

This brightness image was taken through the clear filter of Dawn’s framing camera. The distance to the surface of Vesta is 700 kilometers (435 miles) and the image has a resolution of about 70 meters (230 feet) per pixel.

Orbit map: Where is Dawn now?

Vesta resides in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and is thought to be the source of many of the meteorites that fall to Earth. The Dawn spacecraft successfully entered orbit around Vesta on July 16, 2011.

After its investigation of Vesta, Dawn will leave orbit and move on to Ceres. It will become the first spacecraft to orbit two different worlds.

Image Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA