Ready For Your Closeup, Ceres? NASA Spacecraft Gets Closer To Dwarf Planet

The next few years will be banner ones for learning about dwarf planets. While the high-profile New Horizons spacecraft zooms towards a Pluto date in 2015, the Dawn spacecraft is making a more stealthy (in terms of media coverage) run at Ceres, which is the smallest and closest dwarf planet to Earth.

The Dawn spacecraft, as readers likely recall, made its first port of call at fellow protoplanet Vesta. What excites scientists this time around is the likelihood of water ice on Ceres’ surface. Vesta, by contrast, was very dry.

Here’s Dawn’s agenda once it gets to Ceres in April 2015:

“Dawn will make its first full characterization of Ceres later in April, at an altitude of about 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) above the icy surface. Then, it will spiral down to an altitude of about 2,750 miles (4,430 kilometers), and obtain more science data in its survey science orbit. This phase will last for 22 days, and is designed to obtain a global view of Ceres with Dawn’s framing camera, and global maps with the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR),” NASA stated.

“Dawn will then continue to spiral its way down to an altitude of about 920 miles (1,480 kilometers), and in August 2015 will begin a two-month phase known as the high-altitude mapping orbit. During this phase, the spacecraft will continue to acquire near-global maps with the VIR and framing camera at higher resolution than in the survey phase. The spacecraft will also image in ‘stereo’ to resolve the surface in 3-D.”

Dawn will then zoom down to an altitude of just 233 miles (375 kilometers) in November 2015 for three months to obtain information about elements and the dwarf planet’s gravity. Dawn will use its Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND) to do the first part and a gravity experiment to perform the second.

Ceres. Image credit: NASA
Ceres. Image credit: NASA

To conserve fuel, Dawn will also use a “hybrid” pointing control method to keep it on track, using both reaction wheels and thrusters to stay in the right direction. This is needed because two of its four reaction wheels had “developed excessive friction” by the time Dawn departed Vesta. The hybrid method was tested for 27 hours and successfully concluded Nov. 13. You can check out more about the hybrid mode at this link.

Oh, and as a reminder of what Dawn found at Vesta, check out these Universe Today stories about it discovering hydrogen, learning about its internal structure and taking a close-up of a huge mountain.

This article has been corrected to put Dawn’s correct arrival date.

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

Holiday Greetings from an Alien Snowman on Vesta


Celebrate the winter holiday season in the company of an ‘Alien Snowman’ on the asteroid Vesta, someone we didn’t even have a clue about until six months ago.

Vesta and the Snowman have been transformed into the beautiful banner above – sent to me courtesy of the Dawn mission team to share with the readers of Universe Today.

Now you can be a creative artist and use the striking new images of Vesta to fashion your own greeting cards (see below) and send seasonal tidings of winter holiday cheer not possible before – all thanks to the remarkably insightful discoveries of Dawn’s international science team.

Vesta Greeting Card created by Joe W - From Dawn website

The Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta is one of NASA’s crowning scientific accomplishments of 2011 because it’s cameras and spectrometers have unveiled a mysteriously diverse world that has no match elsewhere in our solar system.

The more we explore the unknown the more we are enlightened as to just how limited our view of the Universe is from within the narrow confines of our miniscule abode.

Vesta Greeting Card created by Judy C - From Dawn website
Hey, Let's go skiing at the South Pole !

The Kepler Space Telescopes latest discoveries of Earth-sized worlds are just the latest examples guiding us to a clearer understanding of our place in the Universe.

Vesta Greeting Card created by Jillian S - From Dawn website

Here are just a few of the Vestan images you can masterfully decorate – the Snowman, The Mount Everest of Vesta and the cataclysmically bombarded South Pole.

Alien Snowman on Vesta
An impact structure on asteroid Vesta resembling a snowman. Credit: NASA

So, let you imaginations run wild with wintery scenes to match the majesty of this matchless world. The Dawn Education and Public Outreach (EPO) team has created several templates which you can access here

Of course you can also use any of the images posted at the Dawn mission website.

The Mount Everest of Vesta
Image of asteroid Vesta calculated from a shape model, showing a tilted view of the topography of the south polar region. This perspective shows the topography, but removes the overall curvature of Vesta, as if the giant asteroid were flat and not rounded. Credit: NASA
Shattered South Pole of Vesta
This Dawn framing camera image shows scarps, hummocky (eg. wavy/ undulating) terrain and impacts in Vesta's south polar region. Credit: NASA

And feel free to post your inspired creations here at Universe Today.

Vesta is the second most massive object in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn arrived in orbit at Vesta in July 2011 for the first ever close up studies of the shattered celestial body. Dawn will spend a year investigating Vesta before spiraling out towards Ceres, the largest asteroid.

Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:
Dawn swoops to lowest orbit around Vesta – Unveiling Spectacular Alien World
Rainbow of Colors Reveal Asteroid Vesta as More Like a Planet
Vrooming over Vivid Vestan Vistas in Vibrant 3 D – Video
NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Dawn Discovers Surprise 2nd Giant South Pole Impact Basin at Strikingly Dichotomous Vesta
Amazing New View of the Mt. Everest of Vesta
Dramatic 3 D Imagery Showcases Vesta’s Pockmarked, Mountainous and Groovy Terrain
Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin

Amazing New View of the Mt. Everest of Vesta


NASA has just released an amazing new view of the mysterious south pole of Vesta that offers an oblique perspective view of the central mountain peak which is three times as high as Mt Everest. This topographic view , shown above,is completely unique to viewers from Earth and is provided courtesy of NASA’s exotic Dawn Asteroid Orbiter – newly arrived in July 2011.

The mountain peak rises about 15 miles (22 km) above the average height of the surrounding pockmarked terrain at Vesta’s south polar region – formally named Rheasilvia – and is located in the foreground, left side of the new image. A portion of the crater rim with a rather steep slope – known as a scarp – is seen at the right and may show evidence of Vestan landslides.

This oblique image derived from the on board Framing Camera was created from a shape model of the 530 km diameter asteroid. It has been flattened to remove the curvature of Vesta and has a vertical scale adjusted to 1.5 times that of the horizontal scale.

The origin of Vesta’s south polar region is hotly debated among the mission’s science team who will reveal their current theories at a briefing set for October 12 – watch for my upcoming report.

Dawn will remain in orbit at Vesta for 1 year until July 2012 and then fire up its revolutionary ion propulsion system to depart for Ceres, the largest Asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Asteroid Vesta from Dawn
NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 24, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, and will spend a year orbiting the body. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Read Ken’s continuing features about Dawn and Vesta starting here
Dramatic 3 D Imagery Showcases Vesta’s Pockmarked, Mountainous and Groovy Terrain
Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin
First Ever Vesta Vistas from Orbit – in 2D and 3D
Dawn Exceeds Wildest Expectations as First Ever Spacecraft to Orbit a Protoplanet – Vesta

Celestial Body

[/caption]The term celestial body is as expansive as the entire universe, both known and unknown. By definition a celestial body is any natural body outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Easy examples are the Moon, Sun, and the other planets of our solar system. But those are very limited examples. The Kuiper belt contains many celestial bodies. Any asteroid in space is a celestial body. So, what do you write about with such a broad topic? How about a sampling of five of my favorites and leave it at that for now? Which five, though. Well, let’s cover Ceres, the Kuiper belt, the asteroid Cruithne, Achernar, and Apophis.

Ceres is a celestial body that is by far the largest and most massive asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is approximately the size of Texas or 975km x 909 km with a mass of 9.5×1020. It actually represents 1/3 of all of the mass of the asteroid belt. It has enough mass for self gravity which is a major requirement to be considered a dwarf planet. It revolves around the sun every 1679.819 days with a very small axial tilt. The surface is relatively warm. The high temperature is thought to be in the neighborhood of -38°C(235 K). Ceres has a visual brightness magnitude of +6.9 to +9. When it is at the brightest point possible, Ceres is nearly bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. It can be seen with binoculars whenever it is above the horizon on a completely dark night.

The Kuiper belt contains many a celestial body. It is actually a disk-shaped region in the outer solar system lying beyond the orbit of Neptune and extending to a distance of about 50 astronomical units, containing thousands of small icy bodies, some of which are on highly elliptical orbits, periodically visiting the inner solar system as comets. It is thought to be a collection of the remnants of the formation of the solar system. Who knows what may be found when we are able to send spacecraft to its edges?

As a celestial body, the asteroid Cruithne is sort of small and indistinct until you consider that it is locked in a 1:1 orbit with the Earth. The asteroid is sometimes referred to as the Earth’s second moon. It is not a true moon because the Earth’s gravity does not effect it nor does its effect the Earth. Cruithne’s nearest pass to Earth is .1 AU (40 moon lengths), although right now it never comes closer than .3 AU. The asteroid sort of runs like a corkscrew around the Earth while both are revolving around the Sun. The asteroid Cruithne is in a normal elliptic orbit around the Sun. Its revolution around the Sun, approximately 364 days at present, is almost equal to that of the Earth. Because of this, Cruithne and Earth appear to follow each other in their paths around the Sun.

The celestial body Achernar is a bright, blue, B3-type star of six to eight solar masses lying approximately 144 light years away. It is classified as a dwarf, but it is 3,000 times more luminous than our Sun. It is in the deep southern sky and never rises above 33°N. Achernar is best seen from the southern hemisphere in November; it is circumpolar below 33°S. Achernar spins so quickly that is spherical in shape. The distance along its equator is 50% greater than its polar diameter. It is the brightest star in the Eridanus constellation. It is also the 9th brightest star in the night sky. Of the 10 brightest stars, other than our Sun, it is the hottest and bluest.

The celestial body Apophis is one of the most intriguing, to me. It is the stuff that many sci-fi legends have been based on. Apophis is most famous for the stir it caused in 2004. The asteroid was discovered on its way towards the Earth and was predicted to have a 2.7% chance of impacting the Earth. That in and of itself is not significant. Objects impact the Earth on a yearly basis. The size of Apophis was the major concern. Even a small chance that an asteroid the size of a small town hitting the Earth rightly caused a large commotion. It achieved the highest score ever on the Torino scale and it stayed on an elevated level for longer than any other asteroid ever has. It was eventually studied enough to know that it would not hit the Earth in 2004. The asteroid will pass again in 2029. Scientists predict that it will not hit the Earth, but it may pass through a gravitational keyhole that could alter its orbit enough that it could impact in 2036. The chances are slight, but real. Even if it doesn’t hit a keyhole in 2029 it will return every seven years and may pose a serious threat in the future. Scientists have proposed that Apophis be nudged out of its present orbit into an orbit that takes it further from the keyhole. NASA scientist David Morrison says, “After 2029, the deflection would have to be vigorous enough to miss not just a tiny keyhole but the much larger target of the Earth itself. And such a deflection is far beyond present technology for an asteroid this large.”.

Many things can make a celestial body interesting. Everyone has their favorites. Mine happen to be the five I have listed. Each can be further researched here on Universe Today. Follow these links to find what you need: Ceres, the Kuiper belt, the asteroid Cruithne, Achernar, and Apophis. Astronomy Cast offers a good episode about the mind-boggling possibility of multiple universes. Here’s a list of the 10 brightest stars.


Minor Planets

Main Belt Asteroids

Minor planet is a term used to refer to a celestial object – that is not a planet or comet – which orbits the Sun. Found in 1801, Ceres, also known as a dwarf planet, was the first minor planet discovered. The term minor planet has been in use since the 1800’s. Planetoids, asteroids, and minor planets have all been used interchangeably, but the situation became even more confusing when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) committee reclassified minor planets and comets into the new categories of dwarf planets and small solar system bodies. At the same time, the IAU created a new definition of what a planet is, and Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet. Hydrostatic equilibrium – the ability to maintain a roughly spherical shape – is what separates dwarf planets from the more irregularly shaped small solar system bodies. The names become even more confusing because the IAU still recognizes the use of the term minor planets.

Minor planets are extremely common with over 400,000 registered and thousands more found each month. Approximately 15,000 minor planets have been given official names while the rest are numbered. When asteroids were first discovered, they were named after characters from Greek and Roman mythology like Ceres was. At first, astronomers thought that the asteroids, especially Ceres and Pallas were actually planets. Astronomers also created symbols for the first asteroids found. There were symbols created for 14 asteroids and some of them were very complex like Victoria’s symbol, which looks like a plant with three leaves growing out of an off center starburst. Soon, astronomers ran out of mythological names and started christening asteroids after television characters, famous people, and relatives of discoverers. Most names were feminine, attesting to an unnamed  tradition. As the numbers ran into the thousands, scientists started using their pets as inspiration. After an asteroid was named 2309 Mr. Spock, pet’s names were banned. That did not stop the oddness though because names such as 9007 James Bond and 6402 Chesirecat have been suggested and actually accepted.

There are a number of different categories that minor planets fall into including asteroids, Trans-Neptunian objects, and centaurs. There  are various types of asteroids, although most of them can be found in the asteroid belt, which is the region of space between Mars and Jupiter. Trans-Neptunian objects are celestial bodies found orbiting beyond Neptune, and centaurs are celestial bodies with unstable orbits located between Jupiter and Neptune. The categories also overlap, making classifying things a nightmare. For example, Ceres is a dwarf planet and minor planet, additionally it can also be classified as an asteroid.

Universe Today has a number of articles including astronomers find new minor planet and why Pluto is no lone a planet.

You can also check out these articles on asteroids and the solar system.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the asteroid belt you will want to listen to.