Dear Unhesidawntingly Enthusiastic Readers,
An ambitious explorer from Earth is gaining the best views ever of dwarf planet Ceres. More than two centuries after its discovery, this erstwhile planet is now being mapped in great detail by Dawn.
The spacecraft is engaged in some of the most intensive observations of its entire mission at Ceres, using its camera and other sensors to scrutinize the alien world with unprecedented clarity and completeness. At an average altitude of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers) and traveling at 400 mph (645 kilometers per hour), Dawn completes an orbit every 19 hours. The pioneer will be here for more than two months before descending to its final orbit.
The complex spiral maneuver down from the second mapping orbit at 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) went so well that Dawn arrived in this third mapping orbit on Aug. 13, which was slightly ahead of schedule. (Frequent progress of its descent, and reports on the ongoing work in the new orbit, are available here and on Twitter @NASA_Dawn.) It began this third mapping phase on schedule at 9:53:40 p.m. PDT on Aug. 17.
We had a detailed preview of the plans last year when Dawn was more than six thousand times farther from Ceres than it is today. (For reasons almost as old as Ceres itself, this phase is also known as the high altitude mapping orbit, or HAMO, although we have seen that it is the second lowest of the four mapping orbits.) Now let’s review what will happen, including a change mission planners have made since then.
The precious pictures and other data have just begun to arrive on Earth, and it is too soon to say anything about the latest findings, but stand by for stunning new discoveries. Actually, you could get pictures about as good as Dawn’s are now with a telescope 217 times the diameter of Hubble Space Telescope. An alternative is to build your own interplanetary spaceship, travel through the depths of space to the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system, and look out the window. Or go to the Ceres image gallery.
Dawn has already gained fabulous perspectives on this mysterious world from its first and second mapping orbits. Now at one third the altitude of the mapping campaign that completed in June, its view is three times as sharp. (Exploring the cosmos is so cool!) That also means each picture takes in a correspondingly smaller area, so more pictures are needed now to cover the entire vast and varied landscape. At this height, Dawn’s camera sees a square about 88 miles (140 kilometers) on a side, less than one percent of the more than one million square miles (nearly 2.8 million square kilometers). The orbital parameters were chosen carefully so that as Ceres rotates on its axis every nine hours (one Cerean day), Dawn will be able to photograph nearly all of the surface in a dozen orbital loops.
When Dawn explored the giant protoplanet Vesta from comparable orbits (HAMO1 in 2011 and HAMO2 in 2012), it pointed its scientific instruments at the illuminated ground whenever it was on the dayside. Every time its orbit took it over the nightside, it turned to point its main antenna at Earth to radio its findings to NASA’s Deep Space Network. As we explained last year, however, that is not the plan at Ceres, because of the failure of two of the ship’s reaction wheels. (By electrically changing the speed at which these gyroscope-like devices rotate, Dawn can turn or stabilize itself in the zero-gravity conditions of spaceflight.)
We discussed in January that the flight team has excogitated innovative methods to accomplish and even exceed the original mission objectives regardless of the condition of the wheels, even the two operable ones (which will not be used until the final mapping orbit). Dawn no longer relies on reaction wheels, although when it left Earth in 2007, they were deemed indispensable. The spacecraft’s resilience (which is a direct result of the team’s resourcefulness) is remarkable!
One of the many ingredients in the recipe for turning the potentially devastating loss of the wheels into a solid plan for success has been to rotate the spacecraft less frequently. Therefore, sometimes Dawn will wait patiently for half an orbit (almost 9.5 hours) as it flies above ground cloaked in the deep darkness of night, its instruments pointed at terrain they cannot detect. Other times, it will keep its antenna fixed on Earth without even glancing at the sunlit scenery below, because it can capture the views on other revolutions. This strategy conserves hydrazine, the conventional rocket propellant used by the small jets of the reaction control system in the absence of the wheels. It takes more time, but because Dawn is in orbit, time is not such a limited resource. It will take 12 passages over the illuminated hemisphere, each lasting nearly 9.5 hours, to bring the entirety of the landscape within view of its camera, but we will need a total of 14 full revolutions, or 11 days (29 Cerean days, for those of you using that calendar), to acquire and transmit all the data. The Dawn team calls this 11-day period “11 days,” or sometimes a “cycle.”
In quite a change from the days that there simply didn’t seem to be enough hydrazine onboard to accomplish all of the mission’s ambitious objectives, engineers and the spacecraft itself have collaborated to be so efficient with the precious molecules that they now have some to spare. Therefore, mission planners have recently decided to spend a few more in this mapping orbit. They have added extra turns to allow the robot to communicate with Earth during more of the transits over the nightside than they had previously budgeted. This means Dawn can send the contents of its computer memory to Earth more often and therefore have space to collect and store even more data than originally planned. An 11-day mapping cycle is going to be marvelously productive.
But Dawn has goals still more ambitious than taking pictures and recording infrared and visible spectra of the lands passing underneath it. It will conduct six complete mapping cycles, each one looking at a slightly different angle. This will effectively yield stereo views, which when combined will make those flat images pop into full three dimensionality.
In its first mapping cycle, which is taking place now, the explorer aims its instruments straight down. For the second, it will keep the camera pointed a little bit back and to the left, making another full map but with a different perspective. For the third, it will look a little back and to the right. The fourth map will be viewing the scenery ahead and to the left. The fifth map will be of the terrain immediately ahead, and the sixth will be farther back than the third but not as far to the right.
In addition to the stereo pictures and the many spectra (which reveal the nature of the minerals as well as the surface temperature), Dawn will use the color filters in its camera to record the sights in visible and infrared wavelengths.
As always, mission planners schedule more observations than are needed, recognizing that glitches can occur on a complex and challenging expedition in the forbidding depths of space. So even if some data are not collected, the goals can still be accomplished.
The probe also will continue to acquire spectra both of neutrons and of gamma rays. It is unlikely to detect more than a whisper of neutrons from Ceres at this height, but the radiation coming from elsewhere in space now will serve as a useful calibration when it measures stronger nuclear emanations from one quarter the altitude starting in December, allowing scientists to inventory Ceres’ atomic constituents.
Precise measurements of Dawn’s radio signal will reveal more details of the dwarf planet’s gravitational field and hence the distribution of mass within. When the spacecraft is not aiming its main antenna at Earth, it will broadcast through one of its three auxiliary antennas, and the Deep Space Network will be listening (almost) continuously throughout the 84 orbits.
Thanks to the uniquely efficient and exceptionally gentle thrust of the ion engines, as well as the flexibility inherent in being in orbit, Dawn operations generally can be more leisurely than those with conventional chemical propulsion or missions that only fly past their targets rather than stay for as long as needed. In that spirit, controllers had allowed the time in the spacecraft’s main computer to drift off, as there was no need to keep it particularly accurate. But recently the clock was off by so much that they decided to correct it, so before the mapping began, they adjusted it by a whopping 0.983 seconds, eliminating a large (but still tolerable) offset.
Many residents of Earth’s northern hemisphere are completing their leisurely summer vacations. As we saw in February, Dawn has measured the orientation of Ceres’ spin axis and found that it is tipped about four degrees (compared with Earth’s axial tilt of 23 degrees). The sun then never moves very far from the dwarf planet’s equator, so seasonal variations are mild. Nevertheless, northern hemisphere summer (southern hemisphere winter) began on Ceres on July 24. Because Ceres takes longer to revolve around the sun than Earth, seasons last much longer. The next equinox won’t occur until Nov. 13, 2016, so there is still plenty of time to plan a summer vacation.
Meanwhile, Dawn is working tirelessly to reveal the nature of this complex, intriguing world. Now seeing the exotic sights with a shaper focus than ever, the probe’s meticulous mapping will provide a wealth of new data that scientists will turn into knowledge. And everyone who has ever seen the night sky beckon, everyone who has heard the universe’s irresistible invitation, and everyone who has felt the overpowering drive for a bold journey far from Earth shares in the experience of this remarkable interplanetary adventure.
Dawn is 905 miles (1,456 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.06 AU (191 million miles, or 308 million kilometers) from Earth, or 775 times as far as the moon and 2.03 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 34 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
5:00 p.m. PDT August 21, 2015