Remember Dawn, the spacecraft that showed us our first close-up images of asteroid/protoplanet Vesta when it entered orbit back in 2011? Well Dawn is still going strong, having left Vesta behind and now closing in on its next target: Ceres, a full-fledged dwarf planet and, at about 600 miles (965 km) wide, the largest object in the main asteroid belt. Once Dawn arrives at Ceres on March 6 it will be the first spacecraft to enter orbit around two different targets!*
But despite all its travels Dawn isn’t burning any liquid fuel to get where it needs to go. Instead, it’s using some “crazy engineering” – ion engines, which produce only a tiny amount of force but, in space and over the course of weeks and months (and years), add up to a lot of acceleration. Find out how this works below…
It’s its three 12-inch ion thrust units that make Dawn’s mission possible. “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.
On Dec. 26, 2014 Dawn officially entered its approach phase to Ceres and we should be getting continually improving views as the weeks go by. By the end of this month Dawn’s images will be the best ever obtained of Ceres (and that will only be the beginning!)
“Dawn seeks to discover many of the secrets of this unfamiliar, fascinating member of the solar system family. One of the measures of its success would be if, upon answering many of our questions about Ceres, we are left with even more questions. Now on the threshold of an old world which will be new to us, we do not have long to wait for the great rewards of new knowledge, new insight, new thrills and new mysteries to solve.”
– Marc Rayman, Dawn Mission Director, JPL (Read more here.)
Source: NASA JPL