Category Archives: Comets and Asteroids

Dawn Emerges from the Darkness to Send New Views of Ceres

Animated sequence of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft showing northern terrain on the sunlit side of Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Animated sequence of images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft showing northern terrain on the sunlit side of Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

After a brief period of silence (due to its position on the dwarf planet’s night side) NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is now sending back images from orbit around Ceres, revealing amazing details of its surface and giving another look at those mystery “bright spots” that have intrigued scientists since their discovery in 2003.

The animation above shows Ceres’ northern hemisphere as it rotated into the sunlight on April 14. The brightest bright spot can be seen in the crater at right – as Dawn was on approach earlier this year it resolved that spot into two distinct regions.

Scientists still aren’t sure exactly what those are, but soon Dawn will be getting an even better look.

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This Was Rosetta’s View of Earth and the Moon in March 2005

The Moon beyond Earth's limb imaged by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft on March 4, 2005 (ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

The Moon beyond Earth’s limb imaged by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on March 4, 2005 (ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

ESA’s comet-chasing Rosetta mission is best known today for its two historic firsts of entering orbit around a comet and sending a lander onto the surface of said comet, in May and November of 2014 respectively. But Rosetta didn’t just go directly from its March 2, 2004 launch to comet 67P; it had to perform several flyby maneuvers beforehand with planets and asteroids on its way out to meet a comet. And now, ESA has shared many of the images acquired during those close passes during its cruise phase in a series of online albums for the public to easily access.

The image above shows the Moon beyond the hazy line of Earth’s atmosphere, acquired on March 4, 2005 during Rosetta’s first gravity-assist flyby of Earth just over a year after its launch. (Rosetta made three such passes by our planet before gathering enough velocity to make it out to 67P!)

See a list of Rosetta’s flybys below and find out how to access the albums.

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No Signal Yet From Philae (But ESA Isn’t Giving Up)

Philae's view from its current location on comet 67P/C-G. ( ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

Philae’s view from its current location on comet 67P/C-G, captured by one of its three CIVA cameras. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

The first attempt by ESA and Rosetta to hear back from Philae has turned up only radio silence – but that doesn’t necessarily mean the lander is on permanent shutdown. It may just be that it’s still too cold and dark where Philae is to have sufficiently warmed up its components for reactivation.

“It was a very early attempt; we will repeat this process until we receive a response from Philae,” said DLR (Germany’s Aerospace agency) Project Manager Stephan Ulamec. “We have to be patient.”

After landing in an as yet unconfirmed location on comet 67P on November 12, 2014, Philae performed all of its primary science tasks before running out of battery power and entering a hibernation “safe” mode. Its reawakening is anticipated by mission engineers as the comet gets closer to the Sun over the next several months.

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History Is Made Today As Dawn Arrives At Ceres

Image of the 600-mile-wide Ceres captured by Dawn on March 1, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Image of the 600-mile-wide Ceres captured by Dawn on March 1, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

It’s official – NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has arrived at the dwarf planet Ceres! Today, March 6 2015, at 7:39 a.m. EST (12:39 UTC) Dawn was captured by Ceres’ gravity at a distance of 38,000 miles (61,155 km). Mission controllers at JPL received a signal from the spacecraft at 8:36 a.m. EST (13:36 UTC) that Dawn was healthy and thrusting with its ion engine, indicating Dawn had entered orbit as planned.

Illustration of Dawn's arrival (far left) and orbit at Ceres. (NASA/JPL)

Illustration of Dawn’s arrival (far left) and orbit at Ceres. (NASA/JPL)

Over the next several weeks Dawn will move into a lower orbit around Ceres, making observations along the way.

Dawn is the first spacecraft to successfully enter orbit around two worlds* and the first to orbit a dwarf planet. Its first target was the asteroid Vesta, which it orbited from July 2011 to September 2012. Now at Ceres two and a half years later, it will remain in orbit both during its primary science phase and beyond… Ceres will be Dawn’s permanent home.

“Since its discovery in 1801, Ceres was known as a planet, then an asteroid and later a dwarf planet. Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles and 7.5 years, Dawn calls Ceres home.”

–  Marc Rayman, Mission Director and Dawn chief engineer

Congratulations Dawn and the mission team! Follow the Dawn mission news here (and of course right here on Lights in the Dark!)

Source: NASA/JPL

*The two worlds, Vesta and Ceres, are separate targeted worlds of a science mission. This does not include time spent orbiting Earth, for this mission or others, prior to departure burn.

Rosetta Shadows Its Comet… Yes, Literally

Close view of a 228 x 228 meter region on Comet 67P/C-G. Rosetta's shadow can be seen at the bottom. (ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

OSIRIS image of a 228 x 228 meter region on Comet 67P/C-G. Rosetta’s shadow can be seen at the bottom. 

See the image above? It’s the surface of a comet. Pretty cool. See the dark spot along the bottom? It’s the shadow of the spacecraft that took the image of the comet.

WAY cool!

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Strange Bright Spots Beckon as Dawn Closes in on Ceres

Rotational animation of Ceres made from Dawn images . Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Rotational animation of Ceres made from Dawn images . Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is just a few days away from getting snagged by the pull of Ceres, a dwarf planet existing amongst the asteroids. As it’s approaching via the slow but steady thrust of its ion engines Dawn is getting better and better images of Ceres, bringing the world’s features into focus. But on Friday, March 6 (at 7:20 a.m. EST / 12:20 UTC) it will finally feel the gentle tug of Ceres’ gravity and will soon become the first spacecraft to enter orbit around two different targets.

“Dawn is about to make history,” said Robert Mase, project manager for the Dawn mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Our team is ready and eager to find out what Ceres has in store for us.”

One of the biggest mysteries that has arisen during Dawn’s approach to Ceres is the true identity of the two bright spots located within a crater on its northern hemisphere. Shining like the eyes of some nocturnal creature, the bright region was first seen in Hubble images captured in December 2003. Now Dawn has gotten close enough to resolve it into two separate spots, one brighter than the other… but not much more is known about its true nature yet. Read the rest of this entry

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