NASA Dawn Spacecraft Nears Dwarf Planet Ceres and New Horizon begins observing Pluto Jan 15

NASA Dawn has entered its approach phase toward Ceres. The spacecraft will arrive at Ceres on March 6, 2015.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has entered an approach phase in which it will continue to close in on Ceres, a Texas-sized dwarf planet never before visited by a spacecraft. Dawn launched in 2007 and is scheduled to enter Ceres orbit in March 2015.

Dawn recently emerged from solar conjunction, in which the spacecraft is on the opposite side of the sun, limiting communication with antennas on Earth. Now that Dawn can reliably communicate with Earth again, mission controllers have programmed the maneuvers necessary for the next stage of the rendezvous, which they label the Ceres approach phase. Dawn is currently 400,000 miles (640,000 kilometers) from Ceres, approaching it at around 450 miles per hour (725 kilometers per hour).

The spacecraft’s arrival at Ceres will mark the first time that a spacecraft has ever orbited two solar system targets. Dawn previously explored the protoplanet Vesta for 14 months, from 2011 to 2012, capturing detailed images and data about that body.

This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft heading toward the dwarf planet Ceres. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Ceres is almost a complete mystery to us,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Ceres, unlike Vesta, has no meteorites linked to it to help reveal its secrets. All we can predict with confidence is that we will be surprised.”

The two planetary bodies are thought to be different in a few important ways. Ceres may have formed later than Vesta, and with a cooler interior. Current evidence suggests that Vesta only retained a small amount of water because it formed earlier, when radioactive material was more abundant, which would have produced more heat. Ceres, in contrast, has a thick ice mantle and may even have an ocean beneath its icy crust.

Ceres, with an average diameter of 590 miles (950 kilometers), is also the largest body in the asteroid belt, the strip of solar system real estate between Mars and Jupiter. By comparison, Vesta has an average diameter of 326 miles (525 kilometers), and is the second most massive body in the belt.

The spacecraft uses ion propulsion to traverse space far more efficiently than if it used chemical propulsion. In an ion propulsion engine, an electrical charge is applied to xenon gas, and charged metal grids accelerate the xenon particles out of the thruster. These particles push back on the thruster as they exit, creating a reaction force that propels the spacecraft. Dawn has now completed five years of accumulated thrust time, far more than any other spacecraft.

“Orbiting both Vesta and Ceres would be truly impossible with conventional propulsion. Thanks to ion propulsion, we’re about to make history as the first spaceship ever to orbit two unexplored alien worlds,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The next couple of months promise continually improving views of Ceres, prior to Dawn’s arrival. By the end of January, the spacecraft’s images and other data will be the best ever taken of the dwarf planet.

Dawn’s Targets – Vesta and Ceres

Ceres and Vesta are the two most massive residents of the asteroid belt. Vesta is a rocky body, while Ceres is believed to contain large quantities of ice. The profound differences in geology between these two protoplanets that formed and evolved so close to each other form a bridge from the rocky bodies of the inner solar system to the icy bodies, all of which lay beyond in the outer solar system. At present, most of what we now know about Vesta and Ceres comes from ground-based and Earth-orbiting telescopes like NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The telescopes pick up sunlight reflected from the surface in the ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared, and by emitted radiation in the far-infrared and microwave regions.


The object is known by astronomers as “1 Ceres” because it was the very first minor planet discovered. As big across as Texas, Ceres’ nearly spherical body has a differentiated interior – meaning that, like Earth, it has denser material at the core and lighter minerals near the surface. Astronomers believe that water ice may be buried under Ceres’ crust because its density is less than that of the Earth’s crust, and because the dust-covered surface bears spectral evidence of water-bearing minerals. Ceres could even boast frost-covered polar caps.

Astronomers estimate that if Ceres were composed of 25 percent water, it may have more water than all the fresh water on Earth. Ceres’ water, unlike Earth’s, is expected to be in the form of water ice located in its mantle.


Image left: This meteorite is a sample of the crust of the asteroid Vesta, which is only the third solar system object beyond Earth where scientists have a laboratory sample (the other extraterrestrial samples are from Mars and the Moon). The meteorite is unique because it is made almost entirely of the mineral pyroxene, common in lava flows. Image credit: R. Kempton (New England Meteoritical Services)

The asteroid’s official name is “4 Vesta” because it was the fourth asteroid discovered. About the length of Arizona, it appears to have a surface of basaltic rock – frozen lava – which oozed out of the asteroid’s presumably hot interior shortly after its formation 4.5 billion years ago, and has remained largely intact ever since. Telescopic observations reveal mineralogical variations across its surface.

Vesta has a unique surface feature which scientists look forward to peering into. At the asteroid’s south pole is a giant crater – 460 kilometers (285 miles) across and 13 kilometers (8 miles) deep. The massive collision that created this crater gouged out one percent of the asteroid’s volume, blasting over one-half million cubic miles of rock into space.

What happened to the one percent that was propelled from its Vesta home? The debris, ranging in size from sand and gravel to boulder and mountain, was ejected into space where it began its own journey through the solar system. Scientist believe that about 5 percent of all meteorites we find on Earth are a result of this single ancient crash in deep space.

To get an idea of the size of the crater on Vesta’s south pole, the longest dimension of the main-belt asteroid Eros (which the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Shoemaker spacecraft studied in 2000) is 30 kilometers long. That entire asteroid would quite easily be lost in the awesome maw of the crater near Vesta’s south pole. Or, as another analogy, if Earth had a crater that was proportionately as large as the one on Vesta, it would fill the Pacific Ocean.

New Horizons will begin Six month Pluto Encounter

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft came out of hibernation for the last time on Dec. 6. The Pluto-bound probe will have a six-month encounter with the dwarf planet that begins in January.

“New Horizons is healthy and cruising quietly through deep space – nearly three billion miles from home – but its rest is nearly over,” says Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. “It’s time for New Horizons to wake up, get to work, and start making history.”

Since launching in January 2006, New Horizons has spent 1,873 days in hibernation – about two-thirds of its flight time – spread over 18 separate hibernation periods from mid-2007 to late 2014 that ranged from 36 days to 202 days long.

In hibernation mode much of the spacecraft is unpowered; the onboard flight computer monitors system health and broadcasts a weekly beacon-status tone back to Earth. On average, operators woke New Horizons just over twice each year to check out critical systems, calibrate instruments, gather science data, rehearse Pluto-encounter activities and perform course corrections when necessary.

New Horizons pioneered routine cruise-flight hibernation for NASA. Not only has hibernation reduced wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, it lowered operations costs and freed up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions.

Distant observations of the Pluto system begin Jan. 15 and will continue until late July 2015; closest approach to Pluto is July 14.

“We’ve worked years to prepare for this moment,” says Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at APL. “New Horizons might have spent most of its cruise time across nearly three billion miles of space sleeping, but our team has done anything but, conducting a flawless flight past Jupiter just a year after launch, putting the spacecraft through annual workouts, plotting out each step of the Pluto flyby and even practicing the entire Pluto encounter on the spacecraft. We are ready to go.”

“The final hibernation wake up Dec. 6 signifies the end of an historic cruise across the entirety of our planetary system,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “We are almost on Pluto’s doorstep!”