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Marc RaymanFebruary 25, 2015

Dawn Journal: Ceres' Deepening Mysteries

Dear Fine and Dawndy Readers,

The Dawn spacecraft is performing flawlessly as it conducts the first exploration of the first dwarf planet. Each new picture of Ceres reveals exciting and surprising new details about a fascinating and enigmatic orb that has been glimpsed only as a smudge of light for more than two centuries. And yet as that fuzzy little blob comes into sharper focus, it seems to grow only more perplexing.

Dawn is showing us exotic scenery on a world that dates back to the dawn of the solar system, more than 4.5 billion years ago. Craters large and small remind us that Ceres lives in the rough and tumble environment of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and collectively they will help scientists develop a deeper understanding of the history and nature not only of Ceres itself but also of the solar system.

Ceres during OpNav 3

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Ceres during OpNav 3
Dawn observed Ceres for three hours, or one third of a Cerean day, on Feb. 3-4. The spacecraft was 91,000 miles (146,000 kilometers) from the dwarf planet in this imaging session, known as OpNav 3. More detail on that one big bright spot is shown in another image below.

Even as we discover more about Ceres, some mysteries only deepen. It certainly does not require sophisticated scientific insight to be captivated by the bright spots. What are they? At this point, the clearest answer is that the answer is unknown. One of the great rewards of exploring the cosmos is uncovering new questions, and this one captures the imagination of everyone who gazes at the pictures sent back from deep space.

Other intriguing features newly visible on the unfamiliar landscape further assure us that there will be much more to see and to learn — and probably much more to puzzle over — when Dawn flies in closer and acquires new photographs and myriad other measurements. Over the course of this year, as the spacecraft spirals to lower and lower orbits, the view will continue to improve. In the lowest orbit, the pictures will display detail well over one hundred times finer than the RC2 pictures returned a few days ago (and shown below). Right now, however, Dawn is not getting closer to Ceres. On course and on schedule for entering orbit on March 6, Earth’s robotic ambassador is slowly separating from its destination.

“Slowly” is the key. Dawn is in the vicinity of Ceres and is not leaving. The adventurer has traveled more than 900 million miles (1.5 billion kilometers) since departing from Vesta in 2012, devoting most of the time to using its advanced ion propulsion system to reshape its orbit around the sun to match Ceres’ orbit. Now that their paths are so similar, the spacecraft is receding from the massive behemoth at the leisurely pace of about 35 mph (55 kilometers per hour), even as they race around the sun together at 38,700 mph (62,300 kilometers per hour). The probe is expertly flying an intricate course that would be the envy of any hotshot spaceship pilot. To reach its first observational orbit — a circular path from pole to pole and back at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) — Dawn is now taking advantage not only of ion propulsion but also the gravity of Ceres.

On Feb. 23, the spacecraft was at its closest to Ceres yet, only 24,000 miles (less than 39,000 kilometers), or one-tenth of the separation between Earth and the moon. Momentum will carry it farther away for a while, so as it performs the complex cosmic choreography, Dawn will not come this close to its permanent partner again for six weeks. Well before then, it will be taken firmly and forever into Ceres’ gentle gravitational hold.

The photographs Dawn takes during this approach phase serve several purposes. Besides fueling the fires of curiosity that burn within everyone who looks to the night sky in wonder or who longs to share in the discoveries of celestial secrets, the images are vital to engineers and scientists as they prepare for the next phase of exploration.

Ceres during RC1

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Ceres during RC1
Dawn acquired these two pictures of Ceres on Feb. 12 at a distance of 52,000 miles (83,000 kilometers) during the first “rotation characterization,” or RC1.

Ceres during RC2

NASA / JPL- Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Ceres during RC2
Dawn acquired these two pictures of Ceres on Feb. 19 at a distance of 28,000 miles (46,000 kilometers) in RC2. Dawn’s trajectory took it north between RC1 and RC2, so the terrain within view of its camera is farther north here than in RC1. The angle of the sunlight is different as well. Nevertheless, each of these two perspectives is close in longitude to the two above, so some features apparent here are also visible in the RC1 photos. The careful observer will note that these pictures are very cool, especially when compared with earlier ones from Dawn and the best from Hubble Space Telescope, as shown in last month’s Dawn Journal.

The primary purpose of the pictures is for “optical navigation” (OpNav), to ensure the ship accurately sails to its planned orbital port. Dawn is the first spacecraft to fly into orbit around a massive solar system world that had not previously been visited by a spacecraft. Just as when it reached its first deep-space target, the fascinating protoplanet Vesta, mission controllers have to discover the nature of the destination as they proceed. They bootstrap their way in, measuring many characteristics with increasing accuracy as they go, including its location, its mass and the direction of its rotation axis.

Let’s consider this last parameter. Think of a spinning ball. (If the ball is large enough, you could call it a planet.) It turns around an axis, and the two ends of the axis are the north and south poles. The precise direction of the axis is important for our mission because in each of the four observation orbits (previews of which were presented in FebruaryMayJune and August), the spacecraft needs to fly over the poles. Polar orbits ensure that as Dawn loops around, and Ceres rotates beneath it every nine hours, the explorer eventually will have the opportunity to see the entire surface. Therefore, the team needs to establish the location of the rotation axis to navigate to the desired orbit.

We can imagine extending the rotation axis far outside the ball, even all the way to the stars. Current residents of Earth, for example, know that their planet’s north pole happens to point very close to a star appropriately named Polaris (or the North Star), part of an asterism known as the Little Dipper in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear). The south pole, of course, points in exactly the opposite direction, to the constellation Octans (the Octant), but is not aligned with any salient star.

Two bright spots on Ceres

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Two bright spots on Ceres
Dawn took this picture in RC2. The improved resolution shows that the intriguing bright spot from earlier pictures is actually two bright spots. What a wonderful mystery this is!

With their measurements of how Ceres rotates, the team is zeroing in on the orientation of its poles. We now know that residents of (and, for that mater, visitors to) the northern hemisphere there would see the pole pointing toward an unremarkable region of the sky in Draco (the Dragon). Those in the southern hemisphere would note the pole pointing toward a similarly unimpressive part of Volans (the Flying Fish). (How appropriate it is that that pole is directed toward a constellation with that name will be known only after scientists advance their understanding of the possibility of a subsurface ocean at Ceres.)

The orientation of Ceres’ axis proves convenient for Dawn’s exploration. Earthlings are familiar with the consequences of their planet’s axis being tilted by about 23 degrees. Seasons are caused by the annual motion of the sun between 23 degrees north latitude and 23 degrees south. A large area around each pole remains in the dark during winter. Vesta’s axis is tipped 27 degrees, and when Dawn arrived, the high northern latitudes were not illuminated by the sun. The probe took advantage of its extraordinary maneuverability to fly to a special mapping orbit late in its residence there, after the sun had shifted north. That will not be necessary at Ceres. That world’s axis is tipped at a much smaller angle, so throughout a Cerean year (lasting 4.6 Earth years), the sun stays between 4 degrees north latitude and 4 degrees south. Seasons are much less dramatic. Among Dawn’s many objectives is to photograph Ceres. Because the sun is always near the equator, the illumination near the poles will change little. It is near the beginning of southern hemisphere winter on Ceres now, but the region around the south pole hidden in hibernal darkness is tiny. Except for possible shadowing by local variations in topography (as in deep craters), well over 99 percent of the dwarf planet’s terrain will be exposed to sunlight each day.

Guiding Dawn from afar, the operations team incorporates the new information about Ceres into occasional updates to the flight plan, providing the spacecraft with new instructions on the exact direction and throttle level to use for the ion engine. As they do so, subtle aspects of the trajectory change. Last month we described the details of the plan for observing Ceres throughout the four-month approach phase and predicted that some of the numbers could change slightly. So, careful readers, for your convenience, here is the table from January, now with minor updates.

Beginning of activity in Pacific Time zoneDistance from Dawn to Ceres in miles (kilometers)Ceres diameter in pixelsResolution in miles (kilometers) per pixelResolution compared to HubbleIlluminated portion of diskActivity
Dec 1, 2014 740,000
(1.2 million)
9 70
0.25 94% Camera calibration
Jan 13, 2015 238,000
27 22
0.83 95% OpNav 1
Jan 25 147,000
43 14
1.3 96% OpNav 2
Feb 3 91,000
70 8.5
2.2 97% OpNav 3
Feb 12 52,000
122 4.9
3.8 98% RC1
Feb 19 28,000
222 2.7
7.0 87% RC2
Feb 25 25,000
255 2.3
8.0 44% OpNav 4
Mar 1 30,000
207 2.9
6.5 23% OpNav 5
Apr 10 21,000
306 1.9
9.6 17% OpNav 6
Apr 14 14,000
453 1.3
14 49% OpNav 7

In addition to changes based on discoveries about the nature of Ceres, some changes are dictated by more mundane considerations (to the extent that there is anything mundane about flying a spacecraft in the vicinity of an alien world more than a thousand times farther from Earth than the moon). For example, to accommodate changes in the schedule for the use of the Deep Space Network, some of the imaging sessions shifted by a few hours, which can make small changes in the corresponding views of Ceres.

The only important difference between the table as presented in January and this month, however, is not to be found in the numbers. It is that OpNav 3, RC1 and RC2 are now in the past, each having been completed perfectly.

As always, if you prefer to save yourself the time and effort of the multi-billion-mile (multi-billion-kilometer) interplanetary journey to Ceres, you can simply go here to see the latest views from Dawn. (The Dawn project is eager to share pictures promptly with the public. The science team has the responsibility of analyzing and interpreting the images for scientific publication. The need for accuracy and scientific review of the data slows the interpretation and release of the pictures. But just as with all of the marvelous findings from Vesta, everything from Ceres will be available as soon as practicable.)

In November we delved into some of the details of Dawn’s graceful approach to Ceres, and last month we considered how the trajectory affected the scene presented to Dawn’s camera. Now that we have updated the table, we can enhance a figure from both months that showed the craft’s path as it banks into orbit and maneuvers to its first observational orbit. (As a reminder, the diagram illustrates only two of the three dimensions of the ship’s complicated route. Another diagram in November showed another perspective, and we will include a different view next month.)

Section of Dawn’s approach trajectory

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Section of Dawn’s approach trajectory
We are looking down on the north pole of Ceres. (Readers who reside in the constellation Draco will readily recognize this perspective). The sun is off the figure far to the left. The spacecraft flies in from the left and then is captured (enters orbit) on the way to the apex of its orbit. It gets closer to Ceres during the first part of its approach but then recedes for a while before coming in still closer at the end. When Dawn is on the right side of the figure, it sees only a crescent of Ceres, because the illumination is from the left. The trajectory is solid where Dawn is thrusting with its ion engine, which is most of the time. The labels show where it pauses to turn, point at Ceres, conduct the indicated observation, turn to point its main antenna to Earth, transmit its precious findings, turn back to the orientation needed for thrusting, and then restart the ion engine. Because RC1 and RC2 observations extend for a full Cerean day of more than nine hours, those periods are longer, both to collect data and to radio the results to Earth. Note that there are four periods on the right side of the figure between capture and OpNav 6 when Dawn pauses thrusting for telecommunications and radio navigation but does not take pictures, as explained here.

We can zoom out to see where the earlier OpNavs were.

All of Dawn’s observations during the approach phase

NASA / JPL-Caltech

All of Dawn’s observations during the approach phase
Note how much shorter this caption is than the one above, despite the similarity of the figures.

As the table and figures indicate, in OpNav 6, when Ceres and the sun are in the same general direction from Dawn’s vantage point, only a small portion of the illuminated terrain will be visible. The left side of Ceres will be in daylight, and most of the hemisphere facing the spacecraft will be in the darkness of night. To get an idea of what the shape of the crescent will be, terrestrial readers can use the moon on March 16. It will be up much of the day, setting in the middle of the afternoon, and it will be comparable to the crescent Dawn will observe on April 10. (Of course, the exact shape will depend on your observing location and what time you look, but this serves as a rough preview.) Fortunately, our spacecraft does not have to contend with bad weather, but you might, so we have generously scheduled a backup opportunity for you. The moon will be new on March 20, and the crescent on March 23 will be similar to what it was on March 16. It will rise in the mid morning and be up until well after the sun sets.

Photographing Ceres as it arcs into orbit atop a blue-green beam of xenon ions, setting the stage for more than a year of detailed investigations with its suite of sophisticated sensors, Dawn is sailing into the history books. No spacecraft has reached a dwarf planet before. No spacecraft has orbited two extraterrestrial destinations before. This amazing mission is powered by the insatiable curiosity and extraordinary ingenuity of creatures on a planet far, far away. And it carries all of them along with it on an ambitious journey that grows only more exciting as it continues. Humankind is about to witness scenes never before seen and perhaps never even imagined. Dawn is taking all of us on a daring adventure to a remote and unknown part of the cosmos. Prepare to be awed.

Dawn is 24,600 miles (39,600 kilometers) from Ceres, or 10 percent of the average distance between Earth and the moon. It is also 3.42 AU (318 million miles, or 512 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,330 times as far as the moon and 3.46 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 57 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
7:00 a.m. PST February 25, 2015

Read more: pretty pictures, mission status, asteroids, Dawn, global views, asteroid 1 Ceres

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Marc Rayman
Marc Rayman

Dawn Chief Engineer and Mission Director for Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Read more articles by Marc Rayman

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