Dawn’s final approach

Next weekend (on 16 July), barring any further unforeseen problems, Nasa’s Dawn spacecraft will enter orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta and begin its year-long observation of the 530km wide proto-planet. [Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA]

From the JPL press release (23 June)

After Dawn enters Vesta’s orbit, engineers will need a few days to determine the exact time of capture. 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.

Images from Dawn’s framing camera, taken for navigation purposes, show the slow progress toward Vesta. They also show Vesta rotating about 65 degrees in the field of view. The images are about twice as sharp as the best images of Vesta from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, but the surface details Dawn will obtain are still a mystery.

“Navigation images from Dawn’s framing camera have given us intriguing hints of Vesta, but we’re looking forward to the heart of Vesta operations, when we begin officially collecting science data,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, at UCLA. “We can’t wait for Dawn to peel back the layers of time and reveal the early history of our solar system.”

Its already getting a good view of the terrain ahead. [Video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/PSI and NASA/ESA/STScI/UMd].

And here’s an animation of the Dawn mission – including its final destination, the dwarf planet Ceres.  [That’s a dwarf planet like Pluto, right? – Ed]  Sort of…  [Video Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

There’s an August 2010 Nasa preview of the Dawn Mission here – with a video presentation narrated by Leonard Nimoy – as opposed to the previously noted video narrated by William Shatner. 

More Dawn related  videos and interviews here.

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