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After traveling almost four years and 1.7 billion miles, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is less than 100,000 miles from its first target: Vesta, the second-largest asteroid in the solar system. Vesta resides in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and is believed to be the source of many of the meteorites that fall to Earth.
Dawn is scheduled to enter orbit around Vesta on July 16.
“The spacecraft is right on target. We look forward to exploring this unknown world during Dawn’s one-year stay in Vesta’s orbit.”
– Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at JPL
Unlike other missions where a dramatic, nail-biting propulsive burn results in orbit insertion around a planet, Dawn has been using its placid ion propulsion system to subtly shape its path for years to match Vesta’s orbit around the sun.
Dawn’s stay at Vesta is the first prolonged visit to a main belt asteroid. It will also be the first visit ever to a protoplanet, a body that never quite became a full-fledged planet. Scientists hope Vesta will provide information on the beginnings of planet formation in the solar system.
The video above is an animation made from images taken by Dawn’s on-board camera on June 20. They reveal surface structures that were previously undetectable from Earth-based telescopes like Hubble.
“Even though in this early approach phase the camera system mainly serves navigational purposes, the images are beginning to show us a new, unique world.”
– Dr. Andreas Nathues, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research
Dawn launched in September 2007. Following a year at Vesta the spacecraft will depart for its second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, in July 2012.
Video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA