NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will soon end its deep-space historic journey in a couple of days as it will enter Ceres’ orbit on Thursday night.
NASA reported that Dawn was on schedule with the approach. The spacecraft started to head for Ceres, the largest space object in the asteroid belt and reclassified as a dwarf planet, in September 2012 after orbiting and gathering data on Vesta, the belt’s second-largest object.
Scientists explained that the orbiter uses ion engines to move across space but the process of traveling is quite slow in order to preserve valuable energy. That’s why, the encounter with Ceres took that much, they added.
“We’ve been using the ion propulsion system for a long time gradually to reshape Dawn’s orbit around the sun so that it matches Ceres’ orbit,”
said Marc Rayman, chief engineer for the Dawn mission, which is remotely controlled from the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
In late January, NASA engineers said that they planned on letting the space vehicle “creep up” on Ceres as it gets closer to so that the planet’s gravity could “gently take hold of it.” Therefore, there will not be too much adrenaline pumping in the JPL team’s bloodstream on Thursday night.
Launched in the fall of 2007, the initial goal of the $466 million mission was to study both Vesta and Ceres. Scientists hope that Dawn will gather crucial data on early universe formation and the conditions in our solar system in its early days.
Dawn spacecraft has already studied Vesta for more than one year, but in September 2012 started its journey toward Ceres. If the orbiter manages to enter its orbit, it will be the first time a man-made object orbited two space bodies, others than the Earth and Moon.
NASA scientists also said that after tomorrow’s encounter, the probe will need six more weeks to enter an orbit that is suitable for scientific observations. The spacecraft is expected to start beaming back to Earth data about Ceres on April 23 and continue until June 30, 2016, when the mission is set to be over.
To this day, Dawn sent to Earth intriguing photos of Ceres that showed two bright spots on the planet’s surface. Researchers speculated that those two may mark icy surfaces which reflect light or volcanic activity. Others believe that it may mark water vapor coming out of the planet’s surface. So, scientists are eagerly awaiting more detailed images on the planet to maybe solve the mystery.
Image Source: Gizmag
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