Visionary Quest to Asteroid Vesta: Arrival July 16

July 11th, 2011

Standby for action! NASA's Dawn spacecraft ready for asteroid survey duties. Credit: NASA/JPL

Standby for up-close looks at the large asteroid Vesta! This object resides in the main asteroid belt and is the target of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft.

Spacecraft controllers are ready to go into orbit around Vesta on July 16. Once on duty, scientists will begin gathering data in early August.

“The spacecraft is right on target,” said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We look forward to exploring this unknown world during Dawn’s one-year stay in Vesta’s orbit.”

Dawn has been using its ion propulsion system to finesse its path for years to match Vesta’s orbit around the Sun.

As Dawn nears Vesta, expect the images taken of the object to be about twice as sharp as the best photography taken of the asteroid to date – those snapped by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Peel back layers of time

The surface details that Dawn will relay are still a mystery.

“We can’t wait for Dawn to peel back the layers of time and reveal the early history of our solar system,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Once in orbit around Vesta, the Dawn probe will be maneuvered to a low-altitude mapping orbit, roughly 120 miles (200 kilometers) above the space rock’s surface.

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.

Dawn’s mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science.

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research,
the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission team.

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By Leonard David