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Marc Rayman

Dawn Journal: Staying at Ceres

Posted by Marc Rayman

30-07-2016 13:19 CDT

Topics: mission status, asteroids, Dawn, asteroid 1 Ceres

Dear Exdawnsions,

Humankind dispatched Dawn on an extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition in 2007. It visited Mars briefly in 2009 and spent 14 months orbiting protoplanet Vesta in 2011-2012, revealing fascinating details of that uncharted, alien world. After traveling for another two and a half years through the interplanetary void, the spacecraft arrived at Ceres in March 2015. It has now conducted an outstandingly successful exploration of the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system. Dawn greatly surpassed its objectives at both Vesta and Ceres, accomplishing well more than was envisioned when NASA decided to undertake this ambitious mission. Having realized its raison d'être, the official end of Dawn's prime mission was June 30.

Following the conclusion of the prime mission, the adventurer began its "extended mission" of performing more Ceres observations without missing a beat. We described in April some of what Dawn can do as it continues investigating many of the mysteries there. Dawn's extension allows for even better measurements with the gamma ray and neutron detector of the nuclear radiation emanating from Ceres. This is like taking a longer exposure of the very faint nuclear glow, yielding a brighter, sharper picture that reveals more about the atomic constituents down to about a yard (meter) underground. The spacecraft is taking more stereo photos, continuing to improve the topographical map it created from four times higher. Scientists also are taking advantage of this opportunity to study more geological features with the visible and infrared mapping spectrometers, providing important insight into Ceres' mineralogical inventory.

Dawn's trajectory

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Dawn's trajectory
Dawn's trajectory through the solar system, starting when it departed from Earth in 2007. Dawn's orbit around the sun is shown in blue. When the spacecraft is in orbit around Vesta or Ceres, its trajectory is the same color as their heliocentric orbits, which are bold when Dawn is accompanying them around the sun. Dawn is carrying out its extended mission in Ceres' permanent gravitational embrace. We have seen Dawn's progress on this figure before, most recently on March 4.

Dawn has already made extraordinary discoveries at Ceres, some of which we have described in recent months. But on a dwarf planet of 1.1 million square miles (2.8 million square kilometers), there is a great deal to see. That, after all, is the benefit of being in orbit, lingering long enough to make a richly detailed portrait of the exotic expanse. Indeed, Ceres has 36 percent of the land area of the contiguous United States, or the combined land areas of France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In such a vast territory, there are innumerable mysteries to unravel. And that is only the surface.

Dawn also is continuing its studies of the gravitational field to discover more about the interior structure of the largest body between Mars and Jupiter.

Salt in Occator Crater

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

Salt in Occator Crater
Dawn captured this view inside Occator Crater on March 26 from an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). We have explained that the bright areas are salts, which reflect much more sunlight than typical materials on Ceres. Recent analysis of Dawn's infrared spectra shows the salt is mostly sodium carbonate. (This is the brightest region on Ceres, but you can see another of the many reflective deposits in one of the pictures below of two adjoining craters.) Occator Crater formed 80 million years ago. Another part of this geologically young crater is shown immediately below. Full image and caption.
Edge of Occator

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

Edge of Occator
Dawn observed the edge of Occator Crater from an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers) on January 26. The crater is 57 miles (92 kilometers) in diameter. Note the detail on the steep walls and the fractures both inside and outside the crater that generally are parallel to the rim. Look carefully to spot some very large boulders (as described here), especially near the top center and left. Full image and caption.

In the coming months we will discuss other intriguing activities and how Dawn will make measurements never even considered before. But for now, let's look at how this extension came about.

As readers of the Dawn Journals know (and as you will be reminded below), there has been very good reason in recent years to believe the spacecraft would not operate beyond the end of its prime mission. However, the veteran explorer is in very good health. It is one of Earth's most experienced and capable ambassadors to the cosmos, we want to squeeze as much out of this mission as we can. Ever resourceful, the Dawn team recognized in March 2016 that the probe had the capability to do yet more and decided to give NASA Headquarters a unique choice: remain at Ceres (as always expected) or go elsewhere.

It is worth pondering how extraordinary this is. Most spacecraft can only make minor adjustments to their trajectories, so at the end of their prime missions, they generally go wherever they were already headed. If a spacecraft is in orbit around some planetary body, it remains in orbit. If a spacecraft is not in orbit, having previously flown past one or more bodies that orbit the sun, its course is largely determined by the targeting for the last encounter. A planet's gravity may have redirected it, but otherwise its propulsion system has to do the work, and that usually can produce only a tiny change in direction. If a spacecraft is not already in orbit around a planetary body, it won't be able to enter orbit.

Dawn is different. With its uniquely capable ion propulsion system, Dawn is the only spacecraft ever to travel to a distant destination, orbit it, later break out of orbit, then travel to another faraway destination, and orbit it. And even while in orbit around Vesta and Ceres, Dawn maneuvered extensively, optimizing its orbits for its scientific investigations. And yet this remarkable ship can do still more. It has the capability to leave its second destination and continue its travels.

Dawn's brilliant and creative navigators analyzed possible missions to more than 68,000 known objects. That alone is a nice illustration of the powerful potential.

The project team very quickly narrowed the list to the most interesting body Dawn could reach after leaving Ceres, a large asteroid named Adeona. That mission offered the best alternative to further studies of the dwarf planet.

Craters on Ceres

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

Craters on Ceres
Dawn had this view of two adjoining craters on Ceres on March 26 from an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). Reflective material, most likely salt left after ice sublimated (as in Occator Crater, shown above), is easily visible. Look carefully inside both craters to see many large boulders (light on the right and dark on the left). Also note what appears to be the remnants of material that flowed to near the middle of the larger crater. Full image and caption.
Pair of craters on Ceres

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

Pair of craters on Ceres
Dawn observed this pair of craters on January 25 from an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers). The upper crater is the younger of the two, as indicated by its sharper features, which have not been eroded as much by the gradual but persistent rain of interplanetary debris falling on Ceres. (In May we discussed how scientists quantify the ages, although the dates these craters formed have not yet been computed.) The wall where the craters meet has partially collapsed into the older one. Full image and caption.

But how to decide between these two attractive possibilities? Some members of the Dawn team preferred continuing the exploration of Ceres and others preferred going to Adeona. Similarly, some people prefer cake and some prefer pie. (That's not a perfect example, because it's obvious cake is better, but you get the idea.)

NASA thoroughly evaluated the scientific potential and other aspects of the options. Part of this was an assessment by an independent group of esteemed scientists. The conclusion was that either would be valuable but that studying Ceres further was preferable.

From the perspective of your correspondent -- passionate about space exploration since the age of four, a professional scientist (as well as a scientist at heart), an engineer and a taxpayer -- this is a wonderful outcome. How could one want anything other than such a well-considered decision?

But how is it even possible that the team could have offered to NASA the option of visiting Adeona for the extended mission? We have emphasized for several years that Ceres would be Dawn's final home. If you had asked even as recently as early this year whether the spacecraft could leave Ceres (and many of you did), we would have responded that such a prospect was unrealistic and inconceivable (and we did). We have described in great detail how the failure of two of Dawn's four reaction wheels was so serious that it was only with heroic effort that the distant robot was able to complete its original assignments. We have explained repeatedly that the spacecraft will soon expend the last of its hydrazine propellant, then immediately lose the ability to point its solar arrays at the sun, its antenna at Earth, its scientific sensors at Ceres or its ion engine in the direction needed to fly elsewhere. Why the change now, and how could Dawn operate for a multiyear journey?

We have discussed in recent months how remarkably well the flight team has done in conserving hydrazine, significantly exceeding any reasonable expectations and thereby extending Dawn's functional lifetime. Moreover, mission controllers know that the probe consumes less hydrazine at higher altitudes. Contrary to many people's notions, the dwarf planet's gravity is appreciable, and operating so close to it requires a very high rate of hydrazine consumption. Dawn is circling only 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres, closer than the International Space Station is to Earth. But during the long deep-space journey to Adeona, Dawn would use the precious propellant much more sparingly. So despite the loss of the two reaction wheels, under the expert guidance of its terrestrial colleagues, the ship could set sail once again for a new and distant land beyond the horizon.

Looking across Ceres

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

Looking across Ceres
Dawn had this scenic view on June 13 while orbiting 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres. This is one of the occasional photographs of the landscape reaching to the horizon, in this case near Kirnis Crater. Full image and caption.

Isn't it incredibly cool that humankind has the capability to fire up the ion engine on a distant interplanetary spaceship and pilot it out of orbit around a dwarf planet to fly more than halfway around the sun on a bold expedition of 900 million miles (1.5 billion kilometers) to investigate a huge asteroid? (Hint: the answer is yes.)

Exciting as such a voyage might seem, it is gratifying that a thoughtful, rationale decision was made that yields an even better outcome. Rather than terminate the present mission after it has exceeded all of its original objectives, and rather than embark on that new mission, the best possible use of Dawn is to do what it is doing right now: extracting secrets from dwarf planet Ceres. And now we can look forward to more, as Dawn pursues new objectives. As the extended mission progresses, we will describe marvelous new findings from the rich trove of data Dawn is returning, and we will see how the team plans to take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn more about the nature of the solar system.

If you share in the passion for exploration, if you thrill to new discoveries and new knowledge or even if you just want to see how many more silly Dawn Journal greetings your correspondent can concoct, stay onboard as Dawn's adventure at Ceres continues.

Dawn is 240 miles (385 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.69 AU (250 million miles, or 403 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,090 times as far as the moon and 2.65 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 45 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:00 p.m. PDT July 27, 2016

See other posts from July 2016


Or read more blog entries about: mission status, asteroids, Dawn, asteroid 1 Ceres


ScienceNotFiction: 07/31/2016 04:03 CDT

Staying at CERES is the best choice for DAWN. This will enable scientists to spot subtle changes on the surface of the planet. I am still skeptical about the so-called reflective material near the rim on some of the craters. It appears that many of these bright patches are near the top of the rim. They don't resemble light reflection at all. Take PIA20835 for example, you can see some kind of hazy fiber-like materials covering the slope near the small cluster of bright areas. These reflective patches near the crater rim are very peculiar for this particular photo. Since Ceres holds a lot of materials that can insulate heat, infrared imaging may not yield conclusive results. I will not rule out the possibility of crater slope tears after impact which created these bright spots revealing the interior near the rim. Some kind of semi-transparent material had filled-in these areas for many years Ice is not likely. These fiber/crystal materials may have the similar origin as those observed from OXO. Unfortunately, DAWN cannot go down further to visually observe these materials in more details. Let us hope DAWN can bring in more interesting photos of Ceres for us to see.

David Frankis: 08/01/2016 03:45 CDT

"NASA thoroughly evaluated the scientific potential and other aspects of the options. Part of this was an assessment by an independent group of esteemed scientists." Will any of the detail of this be published? I would be very interested to know how scientists compare the value of new science at an poorly-known object to that of deeper science at a better-known one.

Tim: 08/01/2016 06:51 CDT

It is an interesting dilemma - to stay at Ceres and study it in more depth or to visit a different asteroid entirely, 145 Adeona, in flyby mode. However, there have already been problems with two of the four reaction wheels so trying to go on to 145 Adeona would be the riskier option. At least Dawn will now be able to observe Ceres at it's closest orbital approach to the Sun (perihelion) so we shall get to see if anything new and interesting happens then.

Chris Landau: 08/03/2016 11:35 CDT

Thanks Marc Why do you not take Dawn down to half its present height so the exploration can continue instead of giving us the same old photos? Let us all get a more detailed view and let the science continue. Go for it Marc! Chris Landau(geologist)

Jonathan Ursin: 08/04/2016 10:43 CDT

Based on the success of this mission it seems like a similar mission could be done to visit lots of little objects. Maybe a mission to visit a handful of Jupiters trojans and/or asteroid Psyche.

Marc Rayman: 08/04/2016 08:32 CDT

Thanks to all of you for your comments and interest. I apologize for my late replies... David: I do not believe anything other than a short summary will be published. I believe details are not released. Tim: Dawn did not need reaction wheels for the Adeona mission (although if they operated, it would have improved the hydrazine margin). The Ceres extended mission may not last through perihelion, but Ceres does move closer to perihelion. Regardless, there are plenty of worthwhile observations that are independent of the distance to the sun. Chris: There are many reasons not to go lower, and I've covered them in previous Dawn Journals and comments on this website. In brief: planetary protection protocols prevent us from moving too close to Ceres because of the dwarf planet's astrobiological potential; Dawn cannot compensate for the significant smear that would occur in a much lower, higher velocity orbit; and the rate of hydrazine use increases VERY quickly as the altitude decreases, so the operational lifetime, even if the two remaining wheels functioned, would be too short to make it worthwhile. In addition, we are not getting "the same old photos." As I've explained, the photos now are taken at angles designed to provide stereo for high resolution topography. We are taking other new pictures as well that I will describe in a future Dawn Journal. Finally, photography is not our top priority in this orbit anyway. The continuation of the mission at Ceres is yielding a wealth of valuable science data. Jonathan: I agree! Other missions are being studied or proposed to NASA. Dawn is successful in many ways, but if you are referring specifically to the successful use of ion propulsion (which we first used for an interplanetary mission on Deep Space 1), note that it is not limited to "little objects." It is useful for many missions that require extensive maneuvering, regardless of the size of the destination.

Steve: 08/09/2016 08:40 CDT

I agree with NASA's decision to stay at Ceres. How likely is it that another spacecraft will be sent there in the future? With so many worlds to explore, it seems best to take advantage of the one spacecraft that is orbiting Ceres to wring as much science out of the mission as possible. It is unlikely that we'll be going there again soon.

ScienceNotFiction: 08/21/2016 04:15 CDT

Intriguing "Branches" on PIA20876 Pan from the middle toward the bottom edge of the photo, one can clearly observe a lot of branching fibers(root-like) coming out of a darken cravess. In fact, there are more root-like fibers on top of many crater surfaces. You can see them branching out above several darken cravesses. Are they crystal growth in irregular branching pattern similar to roots/sponges/coral or they are in fact fossilized roots? This is a good example of how DAWN can yield more secrets by taking more surface photo of Ceres. Ceres deserves to have a future rover mission with autonomous flying drones.

ScienceNotFiction: 08/29/2016 12:43 CDT

Another small patch of "Branches" showing up on PIA20880 A thin layer of root-like material covering the "LOBE" terrain. You can see it suspending above the darken crater cravesses also. Since DAWN has repeatedly captured crater images showing fiber/root like material on the surface, and we know crystal structure cannot grow on the surface with near zero atmosphere, thus we should look for other logical explanations: 1. These are fossilized remnants of ancient planet-like organism. 2. These are fibrous asbesto-like mineral unique to Ceres. 3. These are some kind of organic/bacterial material in coral-like structures, they can absorb the nutrients from the Cerean surface crust. This will always be an unsolved mystery of Ceres until the day we can analyze an actual sample, hopefully in our life time.

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