A decade after leaving its first home in the solar system, Dawn is healthy and successful at its current residence. Even as the veteran explorer orbits high over dwarf planet Ceres and looks forward to continuing its mission, today it can reflect upon 10 exciting and productive years (or equivalently, with its present perspective, 2.17 exciting and productive Cerean years).
The ambitious adventurer embarked on an extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition on Sept. 27, 2007. With its advanced ion propulsion system, Dawn soared past Mars in 2009. The spacecraft took some of the Red Planet’s orbital energy around the sun to boost itself on its journey. (Nevertheless, this extra energy amounts to less than a quarter of what the ion engines have provided.) Ever a responsible citizen of the cosmos, Dawn fully adheres to the principle of the conservation of energy. So to compensate for speeding up, it slowed Mars down.
In 2011, the spacecraft arrived at Vesta, the second largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn gracefully entered into Vesta’s firm but gentle gravitational embrace. The probe maneuvered extensively in orbit, optimizing its views to get the best return possible from its photography and other observations. During 14 months in orbit, Dawn completed 1,298 revolutions around Vesta, taking nearly 31,000 pictures and collecting a wealth of other scientific measurements. From the perspective it had then, Dawn was in residence for nearly a third of a Vestan year (or almost 1,900 Vestan days). The explorer revealed a strange, ancient protoplanet, now recognized to be more closely related to the terrestrial planets (including the one Dawn left 10 years ago) than to the typical and smaller asteroids.
Unlike all other deep-space missions, Dawn had the capability to leave its first orbital destination and voyage to and enter orbit around another. After smoothly disengaging from Vesta, the interplanetary spaceship flew more than 900 million miles (1.5 billion kilometers) in 2.5 years to Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. Indeed, prior to Dawn’s arrival, that dwarf planet was the largest body between the sun and dwarf planet Pluto that a spacecraft had not yet visited. And just as at Vesta, thanks to the maneuverability of ion propulsion, Dawn did not have to be content with a one-time flyby, gathering only as much data as possible during a brief encounter. By going into orbit around Ceres, the spacecraft could linger to scrutinize the exotic, alien world. And that is exactly what it has done.
Both Vesta and Ceres have held secrets since the dawn of the solar system, and both have beckoned since they were first spotted in telescopes at the dawn of the 19th century. For the next two centuries, they appeared as little more than faint smudges of light amidst myriad glittering stellar jewels, waiting for an inquisitive and admiring visitor from Earth. Finally, Dawn answered their cosmic invitations and eventually developed richly detailed, intimate portraits of each.
As the last stop on a unique interplanetary journey of discovery, Ceres has proven well worth the wait. Since arriving in March 2015 (more than half a Cerean year ago, or nearly 2,500 Cerean days ago), Dawn has completed 1,595 revolutions. It has beheld mysterious and fascinating landscapes and unveiled a complex world of rock, ice and salt, along with organic compounds and other intriguing constituents. The dwarf planet may have been covered by an ocean long ago, and there might even be liquid water underground now. The 57,000 pictures and numerous other measurements with the sophisticated sensors will keep scientists busy for many years (both terrestrial and Cerean).
By early 2016, during its ninth year in space, Dawn had accomplished so much that it exceeded all of the original objectives established for it by NASA before the ship set sail. Along the way, Dawn encountered and ultimately overcame many obstacles, including equipment failures that could well have sunk the mission. Against all odds and expectations, however, when its prime mission concluded in June 2016, the spacecraft was still healthy enough that NASA decided to extend the mission to learn still more about Ceres. Since then, Dawn has conducted many investigations that had never even been considered prior to last year. Now it has successfully achieved all of the extended mission objectives. And, once again defying predictions thanks to expert piloting by the flight team (and a small dose of good luck), Dawn still has some life left in it. Before the end of the year, NASA will formulate another new set of objectives that will take it to the end of its operational life.
Dawn has flown to many different orbital altitudes and orientations to examine Ceres. Now the probe is in an elliptical orbit, ranging from less than 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) up to 23,800 miles (38,300 kilometers). At these heights, it is measuring cosmic rays. Scientists mathematically remove the cosmic ray noise from Dawn’s 2015-2016 recordings of atomic elements from a low, tight orbit at only 240 miles (385 kilometers).
In its present orbit, Dawn can make these measurements to clarify Ceres’ nuclear signals while being very frugal with its precious hydrazine, which is so crucial because of the loss of three reaction wheels. (The small supply was not loaded onboard with the intention of compensating for failed reaction wheels.) When the hydrazine is expended, the mission will end. So this high elliptical orbit is a very good place to be while NASA and the Dawn project are determining how best to use the spacecraft in the future.
Meanwhile, this anniversary presents a convenient opportunity to look back on a remarkable spaceflight. For those who would like to track the probe’s progress in the same terms used on past anniversaries, we present here the tenth annual summary, reusing text from previous years with updates where appropriate. Readers who wish to investigate Dawn’s ambitious journey in detail may find it helpful to compare this material with the Dawn Journals from its first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth anniversaries.
In its 10 years of interplanetary travels, the spacecraft has thrust with its ion engines for a total of 2,109 days (5.8 years), or 58 percent of the time (and 0.000000042 percent of the time since the Big Bang). While for most spacecraft, firing a thruster to change course is a special event, it is Dawn’s wont. All this thrusting has cost the craft only 908 pounds (412 kilograms) of its supply of xenon propellant, which was 937 pounds (425 kilograms) on Sept. 27, 2007. The spacecraft has used 69 of the 71 gallons (262 of the 270 liters) of xenon it carried when it rode its rocket from Earth into space.
The thrusting since then has achieved the equivalent of accelerating the probe by 25,400 mph (40,900 kilometers per hour). As previous logs have described (see here for one of the more extensive discussions), because of the principles of motion for orbital flight, whether around the sun or any other gravitating body, Dawn is not actually traveling this much faster than when it launched. But the effective change in speed remains a useful measure of the effect of any spacecraft’s propulsive work. Dawn has far exceeded the velocity change achieved by any other spacecraft under its own power. (For a comparison with probes that enter orbit around Mars, refer to this earlier log.) It is remarkable that Dawn’s ion propulsion system has provided nearly the same change in speed as the entire Delta rocket.
Since launch, our readers who have remained on or near Earth have completed 10 revolutions around the sun, covering 62.8 AU (5.8 billion miles, or 9.4 billion kilometers). Orbiting farther from the sun, and thus moving at a more leisurely pace, Dawn has traveled 42.4 AU (3.9 billion miles, or 6.3 billion kilometers). As it climbed away from the sun, up the solar system hill to match its orbit to that of Vesta, it continued to slow down to Vesta’s speed. It had to go even slower to perform its graceful rendezvous with Ceres. In the 10 years since Dawn began its voyage, Vesta has traveled only 40.5 AU (3.8 billion miles, or 6.1 billion kilometers), and the even more sedate Ceres has gone 37.8 AU (3.5 billion miles, or 5.7 billion kilometers). (To develop a feeling for the relative speeds, you might reread this paragraph while paying attention to only one set of units, whether you choose AU, miles, or kilometers. Ignore the other two scales so you can focus on the differences in distance among Earth, Dawn, Vesta and Ceres over the 10 years. You will see that as the strength of the sun’s gravitational grip weakens at greater distance, the corresponding orbital speed decreases.)
Another way to investigate the progress of the mission is to chart how Dawn’s orbit around the sun has changed. This discussion will culminate with even more numbers than we usually include, and readers who prefer not to indulge may skip this material, leaving that much more for the grateful Numerivores. (If you prefer not to skip it, click here.) In order to make the table below comprehensible (and to fulfill our commitment of environmental responsibility), we recycle some more text here on the nature of orbits.
Orbits are ellipses (like flattened circles, or ovals in which the ends are of equal size). So as members of the solar system family (including Earth, Dawn, Vesta and Ceres) follow their individual paths around the sun, they sometimes move closer and sometimes move farther from it.
In addition to orbits being characterized by shape, or equivalently by the amount of flattening (that is, the deviation from being a perfect circle), and by size, they may be described in part by how they are oriented in space. Using the bias of terrestrial astronomers, the plane of Earth’s orbit around the sun (known as the ecliptic) is a good reference. Other planets and interplanetary spacecraft may travel in orbits that are tipped at some angle to that. The angle between the ecliptic and the plane of another body’s orbit around the sun is the inclination of that orbit. Vesta and Ceres do not orbit the sun in the same plane that Earth does, and Dawn must match its orbit to that of its targets. (The major planets orbit closer to the ecliptic, and part of the arduousness of Dawn’s journey has been changing the inclination of its orbit, an energetically expensive task.)
Now we can see how Dawn has done by considering the size and shape (together expressed by the minimum and maximum distances from the sun) and inclination of its orbit on each of its anniversaries. (Experts readily recognize that there is more to describing an orbit than these parameters. Our policy remains that we link to the experts’ websites when their readership extends to one more elliptical galaxy than ours does.)
The table below shows what the orbit would have been if the spacecraft had terminated ion thrusting on its anniversaries; the orbits of its destinations, Vesta and Ceres, are included for comparison. Of course, when Dawn was on the launch pad on Sept. 27, 2007, its orbit around the sun was exactly Earth’s orbit. After launch, it was in its own solar orbit.
from the Sun (AU)
from the Sun (AU)
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2007 (before launch)
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2007 (after launch)
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2008
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2009
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2010
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2011
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2012
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2013
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2014
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2015
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2016
|Dawn’s orbit on Sept. 27, 2017
For readers who are not overwhelmed by the number of numbers, investing the effort to study the table may help to demonstrate how Dawn patiently transformed its orbit during the course of its mission. Note that six years ago, the spacecraft’s path around the sun was exactly the same as Vesta’s. Achieving that perfect match was, of course, the objective of the long flight that started in the same solar orbit as Earth, and that is how Dawn managed to slip into orbit around Vesta. While simply flying by it would have been far easier, matching orbits with Vesta required the exceptional capability of the ion propulsion system. Without that technology, NASA’s Discovery Program would not have been able to afford a mission to explore the massive protoplanet in such detail. Dawn has long since gone well beyond that. Having discovered so many of Vesta’s secrets, the stalwart adventurer left it behind. No other spacecraft has ever escaped from orbit around one distant solar system object to travel to and orbit still another extraterrestrial destination. From 2012 to 2015, the stalwart craft reshaped and tilted its orbit even more so that now it is identical to Ceres’. Once again, that was essential to accomplishing the intricate celestial choreography in which the behemoth reached out with its gravity and tenderly took hold of the spacecraft. They have been performing an elegant pas de deux ever since.
Even after a decade of daring space travel, flying in deep space atop a blue-green pillar of xenon ions, exploring two of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system, overcoming the loss of three reaction wheels, working hard to stretch its shrinking supply of hydrazine, Dawn is ready for more. And so is everyone who yearns for new knowledge, everyone who is curious about the cosmos, and everyone who is exhilarated by bold adventures into the unknown. More is to come. Dawn—and all those who find the lure of space irresistible—can look forward to whatever lies ahead for this unique mission.
Dawn is 16,600 miles (26,700 kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.92 AU (271 million miles, or 437 million kilometers) from Earth, or 1,080 times as far as the moon and 2.91 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 49 minutes to make the round trip.
Dr. Marc D. Rayman
4:34 a.m. PDT September 27, 2017