NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Probe Moving to Lowest-Ever Orbit Around Ceres

NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Probe Moving to Lowest-Ever Orbit Around Ceres

NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Probe Moving to Lowest-Ever Orbit Around Ceres

NASA's plan is to bring Dawn in as close as it dares, while leaving enough in the tank to reach a higher orbit so that the probe doesn't crash into Ceres and potentially infect the asteroid with terrestrial trash.

Last year, after already extending Dawn's mission once, NASA announced that Dawn would be moving closer to the dwarf planet than ever before, as it moves into a final orbit to keep studying the odd bright spots and other quirks on the surface.

During XMO7, Dawn will orbit Ceres once every 27 hours and 13 minutes, which is exactly three times Ceres's rotation period, meaning for every three rotations Ceres makes, the spacecraft will orbit the dwarf planet once.

Founded premiered in 2007 and was investigating that the two largest bodies at the primary asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres, to discover new insights in our solar system.

The probe will collect the spectra of gamma radiation and neutrons, which will help scientists understand changes in the chemical composition of the uppermost layer of the Ceres. Dawn captured this view on May 16, 2018 from an altitude of about 270 miles (440 kilometers). Because the spacecraft was not created to operate at such close orbits and because the reaction wheels that control its orientation are no longer functioning, Dawn will have to take an elliptical orbit to study Ceres's surface.

"The team is eagerly awaiting the detailed composition and high-resolution imaging from the new, up-close examination", said Dawn's Principal Investigator Carol Raymond of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

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"These new high-resolution data allow us to test theories formulated from the previous data sets and discover new features of this fascinating dwarf planet".

Mission engineers hope to fly low over Occator Crater in each orbit.

Finding an orbit that would both get close to Ceres and allow for good science observations was a challenge for mission engineers, NASA officials said.

"As a bonus objective, scientists would like to study the elements in one of their favorite places (and perhaps one of yours as well): Occator Crater, site of the highly reflective salt deposits, famous not only on Ceres but also on Earth and everywhere else that readers follow Dawn's discoveries", Marc Rayman, mission director and chief engineer for Dawn at JPL, wrote in an April 29 blog post.

Maneuvering Dawn into this terminal orbit was no easy task. The spacecraft will be racing across Ceres, from south to north, at 1,690 kph (1,050 mph) at the low point of the ellipse.

Dawn's camera will image an area 3.4 kilometres (2.1 miles) across.

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