Tuesday, May 31, 2011
NASA / Chuck Tintera
NEXT STOP: LOS ANGELES! Congratulations to the 6-member crew of mission STS-134 for completing a successful 16-day flight to the International Space Station, as well as bringing to an end space shuttle Endeavour's final voyage into low-Earth orbit. For the rest of the year, Endeavour will undergo decommissioning at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida before the orbiter is transported to her last destination sometime in 2012: the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles. I totally can’t wait to see the 'jewel' of the space shuttle fleet [which is what Endeavour was called when she was unveiled to the public at her assembly facility (in Palmdale, California) 20 years ago] in person once she finally goes on display at the museum.
Roscosmos / ESA / NASA
Up next for her own finale: space shuttle Atlantis...which was slowly making her way to KSC’s Launch Complex 39A around the time Endeavour touched down in Florida. In the next hour or so, Atlantis will be situated on the pad to begin preparations for STS-135, the final flight of the space shuttle program. Within two months, a momentous 30-year era in human spaceflight will come to a close. Let’s hope it ends safely and triumphantly.
NASA / Kim Shiflett
Saturday, May 28, 2011
PARMAN’S PAGE Update... A few weeks ago, I created two new subsections to the Artworks page of my website, which you can view by clicking on the red links below. All of these illustrations were done back in high school (Class of '98, yo!), so you’re right to wonder why I haven't been continuing my talent of drawing as opposed to always blogging about space stuff here (especially considering the fact I suck at math and got a ‘D’ in my Astronomy class during my first semester in college). Anyways... Enjoy!
Drawings I made in my AP Studio Art class in high school
Storyboard artwork I created for the Japanese anime Macross Plus
Posted by Richard at 11:09 AM
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
NASA / JPL / Cornell University
FAREWELL, SPIRIT... Today also marks the 3-year anniversary of the Phoenix lander's arrival on Mars.
NASA's Spirit Rover Completes Mission on Mars (Press Release)
NASA has ended operational planning activities for the Mars rover Spirit and transitioned the Mars Exploration Rover Project to a single-rover operation focused on Spirit's still-active twin, Opportunity.
This marks the completion of one of the most successful missions of interplanetary exploration ever launched.
Spirit last communicated on March 22, 2010, as Martian winter approached and the rover's solar-energy supply declined. The rover operated for more than six years after landing in January 2004 for what was planned as a three-month mission. NASA checked frequently in recent months for possible reawakening of Spirit as solar energy available to the rover increased during Martian spring. A series of additional re-contact attempts ended today, designed for various possible combinations of recoverable conditions.
"Our job was to wear these rovers out exploring, to leave no unutilized capability on the surface of Mars, and for Spirit, we have done that," said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Spirit drove 4.8 miles (7.73 kilometers), more than 12 times the goal set for the mission. The drives crossed a plain to reach a distant range of hills that appeared as mere bumps on the horizon from the landing site; climbed slopes up to 30 degrees as Spirit became the first robot to summit a hill on another planet; and covered more than half a mile (nearly a kilometer) after Spirit's right-front wheel became immobile in 2006. The rover returned more than 124,000 images. It ground the surfaces off 15 rock targets and scoured 92 targets with a brush to prepare the targets for inspection with spectrometers and a microscopic imager.
"What's really important is not only how long Spirit worked or how far Spirit drove, but also how much exploration and scientific discovery Spirit accomplished," Callas said.
One major finding came, ironically, from dragging the inoperable right-front wheel as the rover was driving backwards in 2007. That wheel plowed up bright white soil. Spirit's Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer and Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer revealed that the bright material was nearly pure silica.
"Spirit's unexpected discovery of concentrated silica deposits was one of the most important findings by either rover," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity. "It showed that there were once hot springs or steam vents at the Spirit site, which could have provided favorable conditions for microbial life."
The silica-rich soil neighbors a low plateau called Home Plate, which was Spirit's main destination after the historic climb up Husband Hill. "What Spirit showed us at Home Plate was that early Mars could be a violent place, with water and hot rock interacting to make what must have been spectacular volcanic explosions. It was a dramatically different world than the cold, dry Mars of today," said Squyres.
The trove of data from Spirit could still yield future science revelations. Years of analysis of some 2005 observations by the rover's Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer and Moessbauer Spectrometer produced a report last year that an outcrop on Husband Hill bears a high concentration of carbonate. This is evidence of a wet, non-acidic ancient environment that may have been favorable for microbial life.
"What's most remarkable to me about Spirit's mission is just how extensive her accomplishments became," said Squyres. "What we initially conceived as a fairly simple geologic experiment on Mars ultimately turned into humanity's first real overland expedition across another planet. Spirit explored just as we would have, seeing a distant hill, climbing it, and showing us the vista from the summit. And she did it in a way that allowed everyone on Earth to be part of the adventure."
Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
NASA / JPL - Caltech / Cornell
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
ORION (or Whatever-You-Now-Call-It) Update...
NASA Announces Key Decision For Next Deep Space Transportation System (Press Release)
WASHINGTON -- NASA has reached an important milestone for the next U.S. transportation system that will carry humans into deep space. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced today that the system will be based on designs originally planned for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. Those plans now will be used to develop a new spacecraft known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).
"We are committed to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and look forward to developing the next generation of systems to take us there," Bolden said. "The NASA Authorization Act lays out a clear path forward for us by handing off transportation to the International Space Station to our private sector partners, so we can focus on deep space exploration. As we aggressively continue our work on a heavy lift launch vehicle, we are moving forward with an existing contract to keep development of our new crew vehicle on track."
Lockheed Martin Corp. will continue working to develop the MPCV. The spacecraft will carry four astronauts for 21-day missions and be able to land in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. The spacecraft will have a pressurized volume of 690 cubic feet, with 316 cubic feet of habitable space. It is designed to be 10 times safer during ascent and entry than its predecessor, the space shuttle.
"This selection does not indicate a business as usual mentality for NASA programs," said Douglas Cooke, associate administrator for the agency's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington. "The Orion government and industry team has shown exceptional creativity in finding ways to keep costs down through management techniques, technical solutions and innovation."
Saturday, May 21, 2011
MORE IMAGES OF THE DAY... Below are screenshots from the 3-D trailer of Transformers: Dark of the Moon that is now playing in front of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides at theaters nationwide. The image above is of Megatron...who sports a new look in TF3. You can view the 3-D trailer (which isn't in 3-D here) at the end of this journal entry.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
LAST SUNDAY, I attended the Open House at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Pasadena, California. This is the seventh time since 1992 I attended the annual event, and I must say this trip is my favorite one so far...the main reason being that the Curiosity Mars rover is basically complete and ready for launch (this November) when she was put on display inside JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Also, I got to be on the ground floor of the Space Flight Operations Facility (a.k.a. the 'Mission Control' for scores of spacecraft flying around in our solar system), shown above. I took pictures inside the SFOF back in 2006, but that was inside a small viewing room at the back of the control center. To be standing right next to the computers that monitor distant spacecraft such as Cassini, Dawn and Mars spacecraft such as the Opportunity rover was very cool. Anyways, click on the red link below to see more photos that I took at the Open House. Hopefully I’ll be back at JPL on June 6. I’d elaborate on this, but I don’t wanna jinx it. That is all.
LINK: Photos I took at the 2011 JPL Open House
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
NASA / Jack Pfaller
IMAGES OF THE DAY... Earlier this morning, Atlantis was brought out of her Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) to be transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida...where she will be mated with her external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters for flight STS-135. Launch is targeted for mid-July. Atlantis' return to Earth 12 days later will mark the end of the 30-year-old space shuttle program.
NASA / Jack Pfaller
NASA / Jack Pfaller
Monday, May 16, 2011
ENDEAVOUR’S FINAL ACT... Earlier this morning, NASA’s youngest space shuttle orbiter took off on her final mission to install a large physics experiment known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station (ISS). Endeavour will dock with the ISS this Wednesday...and the crew of STS-134 will embark on its main objectives for this flight before heading back home on June 1st. Here’s hoping that the mission is extremely successful, and that Endeavour safely returns to Earth more than 2 weeks from now. ‘Cause after that, she will be prepped at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for her trip to Los Angeles next year...where Endeavour will find her final retirement home at the California Science Center. Can’t wait to pay a visit after she gets there.
Below are construction photos of Endeavour, courtesy of Space.com. Visit that website for more pics.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
NASA's Dawn Captures First Image of Nearing Asteroid (Press Release)
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Dawn spacecraft has obtained its first image of the giant asteroid Vesta, which will help fine-tune navigation during its approach. Dawn is expected to achieve orbit around Vesta on July 16, when the asteroid is about 188 million kilometers (117 million miles) from Earth.
The image from Dawn's framing cameras was taken on May 3 when the spacecraft began its approach and was approximately 1.21 million kilometers (752,000 miles) from Vesta. The asteroid appears as a small, bright pearl against a background of stars. Vesta is also known as a protoplanet, because it is a large body that almost formed into a planet.
"After plying the seas of space for more than a billion miles, the Dawn team finally spotted its target," said Carol Raymond, Dawn's deputy principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This first image hints of detailed portraits to come from Dawn's upcoming visit."
Vesta is 530 kilometers (330 miles) in diameter and the second most massive object in the asteroid belt. Ground- and space-based telescopes obtained images of the bright orb for about two centuries, but with little surface detail.
Mission managers expect Vesta's gravity to capture Dawn in orbit on July 16. To enter orbit, Dawn must match the asteroid's path around the sun, which requires very precise knowledge of the body's location and speed. By analyzing where Vesta appears relative to stars in framing camera images, navigators will pin down its location and enable engineers to refine the spacecraft's trajectory.
Dawn will start collecting science data in early August at an altitude of approximately 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) above the asteroid's surface. As the spacecraft gets closer, it will snap multi-angle images, allowing scientists to produce topographic maps. Dawn will later orbit at approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) to perform other measurements and obtain closer shots of parts of the surface. Dawn will remain in orbit around Vesta for one year. After another long cruise phase, Dawn will arrive in 2015 at its second destination, Ceres, an even more massive body in the asteroid belt.
Gathering information about these two icons of the asteroid belt will help scientists unlock the secrets of our solar system's early history. The mission will compare and contrast the two giant bodies shaped by different forces. Dawn's science instruments will measure surface composition, topography and texture. Dawn will also measure the tug of gravity from Vesta and Ceres to learn more about their internal structures. The spacecraft's full odyssey will take it on a 5-billion-kilometer (3-billion-mile) journey, which began with its launch in September 2007.
Dawn's mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The University of California in Los Angeles is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The framing cameras were developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau in Germany, with significant contributions by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering in Braunschweig. The framing camera project is funded by NASA, the Max Planck Society and DLR.
Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
NASA / JPL - Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA
Saturday, May 07, 2011
FAST FIVE... I saw the Justin Lin-directed action flick last Sunday, and compared to the previous Fast and the Furious films I saw (the first one in 2001, and Fast and Furious in 2009), this one was awesome! Of course, my opinion may be tainted by the fact the movie has a surprising 78% Fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com, but Fast Five truly had a lot of cool action sequences in it. From the opening rescue scene of Vin Diesel (which was a continuation of the final scene in Fast and Furious), to Paul Walker and Jordana Brewser trying to steal cars from a moving train in Brazil, to the ridiculous but entertaining climax where Paul Walker and Vin Diesel evade scores of police cars while literally towing a giant money vault along the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Fast Five definitely delivered as one of the first blockbuster films of the 2011 summer movie season. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was a bad-ass as DSS (Diplomatic Security Service) agent Hobbs...and if you stayed to watch the end credits, you’ll know that he (as well as Eva Mendes) will have a considerable role in the next Fast and the Furious flick. I wouldn’t have said this two weeks earlier, but I’ll totally watch Fast and the Furious 6 whenever it comes out.
FYI, what makes watching Fast Five last Sunday especially noteworthy is the fact I just arrived home from the theater when I found out that Osama bin Laden was eliminated (one of my brothers told me as I was walking into the garage since I usually park my car out on the street). Other people ask "Where were you on 9/11?" (I was at home... I didn’t have college classes that day)... This is what I was doing on the evening the world’s most wanted terrorist was taken out by U.S. Navy SEALs. Carry on.
Thursday, May 05, 2011
PERSONALLY SPEAKING, I'm hoping it's the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) that gets chosen in 2016... This mission definitely intrigues me.
NASA Selects Investigations for Future Key Missions (Press Release)
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA has selected three science investigations from which it will pick one potential 2016 mission to look at Mars' interior for the first time; study an extraterrestrial sea on one of Saturn's moons; or study in unprecedented detail the surface of a comet's nucleus. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., would lead the Mars investigation.
Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct its mission's concept phase or preliminary design studies and analyses. After another detailed review in 2012 of the concept studies, NASA will select one to continue development efforts leading up to launch. The selected mission will be cost-capped at $425 million, not including launch vehicle funding.
NASA's Discovery Program requested proposals for spaceflight investigations in June 2010. A panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers reviewed 28 submissions. The selected investigations could reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes. Three technology developments for possible future planetary missions also were selected.
"NASA continues to do extraordinary science that is re-writing textbooks," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "Missions like these hold great promise to vastly increase our knowledge, extend our reach into the solar system and inspire future generations of explorers."
The planetary missions selected to pursue preliminary design studies are:
-- Geophysical Monitoring Station (GEMS) would study the structure and composition of the interior of Mars and advance understanding of the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets. Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is principal investigator. JPL would manage the project.
The proposed Mars lander would carry three experiments. A seismometer for measuring Mars quakes would yield knowledge about interior materials from the crust to the core. A thermal probe beneath the surface would monitor heat flow from the planet's interior. Radio capability for Doppler tracking of tiny variations in the planet's wobble would provide information about the size and nature of the core. Understanding more about the deep interior of another planet would enable important new comparisons with what is known about Earth's interior.
"We want to know more about how the pieces that formed planets came together in the first place, and about the changes that took place afterwards," Banerdt said. "This would be a mission to understand the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets."
-- Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) would provide the first direct exploration of an ocean environment beyond Earth by landing in, and floating on, a large methane-ethane sea on Saturn's moon Titan. Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md., is principal investigator. Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., would manage the project.
-- Comet Hopper would study cometary evolution by landing on a comet multiple times and observing its changes as it interacts with the sun. Jessica Sunshine of the University of Maryland in College Park is principal investigator. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., would manage the project.
"This is high science return at a price that's right," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division in Washington. "The selected studies clearly demonstrate a new era with missions that all touch their targets to perform unique and exciting science."
The three selected technology development proposals will expand the ability to catalog near-Earth objects, or NEOs; enhance the capability to determine the composition of comet ices; and validate a new method to reveal the population of objects in the poorly understood, far-distant part of our solar system. During the next several years, selected teams will receive funding that is determined through contract negotiations to bring their respective technologies to a higher level of readiness. To be considered for flight, teams must demonstrate progress in a future mission proposal competition.
The proposals selected for technology development are:
-- NEOCam would develop a telescope to study the origin and evolution of near-Earth Objects and study the present risk of Earth-impact. It would generate a catalog of objects and accurate infrared measurements to provide a better understanding of small bodies that cross our planet's orbit. Amy Mainzer of JPL is principal investigator.
A space-based telescope, NEOCam would be positioned in a location about four times the distance between Earth and the moon. From this lofty perch, NEOCam could observe the comings and goings of NEOs every day without the impediments to efficient observing like cloud cover and even daylight. The location in space NEOCam would inhabit is also important, because it allows the monitoring of areas of the sky generally inaccessible to ground-based surveys.
"Near-Earth objects are some of the most bountiful, intriguing and least understood of Earth's neighbors," said Amy Mainzer. "With NEOCam, we would get to know these solar system nomads in greater detail."
-- Primitive Material Explorer (PriME) would develop a mass spectrometer that would provide highly precise measurements of the chemical composition of a comet and explore the objects' role in delivering volatiles to Earth. Anita Cochran of the University of Texas in Austin is principal investigator.
-- Whipple: Reaching into the Outer Solar System would develop and validate a technique called blind occultation that could lead to the discovery of various celestial objects in the outer solar system and revolutionize our understanding of the area's structure. Charles Alcock of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., is principal investigator.
Created in 1992, the Discovery Program sponsors frequent, cost-capped solar system exploration missions with highly focused scientific goals. The program's 11 missions include MESSENGER, Dawn, Stardust, Deep Impact and Genesis. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.
Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Wednesday, May 04, 2011
Virgin Galactic / Clay Center Observatory
SpaceShipTwo's First "Feathered" Flight Marks Latest Milestone for Virgin Galactic (Press Release)
Early on Wednesday 4th May 2011, in the skies above Mojave Air and Spaceport CA, SpaceShipTwo, the world’s first commercial spaceship, demonstrated its unique reentry ‘feather’ configuration for the first time. This test flight, the third in less than two weeks, marks another major milestone on the path to powered test flights and commercial operations.
SpaceShipTwo (SS2), named VSS Enterprise, has now flown solo seven times since its public roll-out in December 2009 and since the completion of its ground and captive-carry test program.
This latest flight saw a 6:43 AM (local) runway take off for VSS Enterprise, attached to its WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft, VMS Eve. At the controls of the of the spaceship were Scaled Composites’ test pilots Pete Siebold and Clint Nichols whilst Mark Stucky, Brian Maisler and Brandon Inks crewed the purpose built, all composite, twin fuselage WK2.
After a 45 minute climb to the desired altitude of 51,500 feet, SS2 was released cleanly from VMS Eve and established a stable glide profile before deploying, for the first time, its re-entry or "feathered" configuration by rotating the tail section of the vehicle upwards to a 65 degree angle to the fuselage. It remained in this configuration with the vehicle’s body at a level pitch for approximately 1 minute and 15 seconds whilst descending, almost vertically, at around 15,500 feet per minute, slowed by the powerful shuttlecock-like drag created by the raised tail section. At around 33,500 feet the pilots reconfigured the spaceship to its normal glide mode and executed a smooth runway touch down, approximately 11 minutes and 5 seconds after its release from VMS Eve.
All objectives for the flight were met and detailed flight data is now being analysed by the engineers at Scaled Composites, designers and builders of Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital spacecraft.
George Whitesides, CEO and President of Virgin Galactic, said: "This morning’s spectacular flight by VSS Enterprise was its third in 12 days, reinforcing the fast turnaround and frequent flight-rate potential of Virgin Galactic’s new vehicles. We have also shown this morning that the unique feathering re-entry mechanism, probably the single most important safety innovation within the whole system, works perfectly. This is yet another important milestone successfully passed for Virgin Galactic, and brings us ever closer to the start of commercial operations. Credit is due to the whole Scaled team, whose meticulous planning and great skill are changing the course of history."
Pete Siebold, who along with Clint Nichols piloted the spaceship added: "In all test flight programs, after the training, planning and rehearsing, there comes the moment when you have to go up there and fly it for real. This morning’s flight was a test pilot’s dream. The spaceship is a joy to fly and the feathered descent portion added a new, unusual but wonderful dynamic to the ride. The fact that it all went to plan, that there were no surprises and that we brought VSS Enterprise back to Mojave safe and sound is a great testament to the whole team."
Wing Feathering for Re-Entry
Perhaps the most innovative safety feature employed by SpaceshipOne and now SpaceShipTwo is the unique way it returns into the dense atmosphere from the vacuum of space. This part of space flight has always been considered as one of the most technically challenging and dangerous and Burt Rutan was determined to find a failsafe solution which remained true to Scaled Composite’s philosophy of safety through simplicity. His inspiration for what is known as the feathered re-entry was the humble shuttlecock, which like SpaceShipTwo relies on aerodynamic design and laws of physics to control speed and attitude.
Once out of the atmosphere the entire tail structure of the spaceship can be rotated upwards to about 65º. The feathered configuration allows an automatic control of attitude with the fuselage parallel to the horizon. This creates very high drag as the spacecraft descends through the upper regions of the atmosphere. The feather configuration is also highly stable, effectively giving the pilot a hands-free re-entry capability, something that has not been possible on spacecraft before, without resorting to computer controlled fly-by-wire systems. The combination of high drag and low weight (due to the very light materials used to construct the vehicle) mean that the skin temperature during re-entry stays very low compared to previous manned spacecraft and thermal protection systems such as heat shields or tiles are not needed. During a full sub-orbital spaceflight, at around 70,000ft following re-entry, the feather lowers to its original configuration and the spaceship becomes a glider for the flight back to the spaceport runway.
Source: Virgin Galactic
Tuesday, May 03, 2011
Dawn Reaches Milestone Approaching Asteroid Vesta (Press Release)
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Dawn spacecraft has reached its official approach phase to the asteroid Vesta and will begin using cameras for the first time to aid navigation for an expected July 16 orbital encounter. The large asteroid is known as a protoplanet -- a celestial body that almost formed into a planet.
At the start of this three-month final approach to this massive body in the asteroid belt, Dawn is 1.21 million kilometers (752,000 miles) from Vesta, or about three times the distance between Earth and the moon. During the approach phase, the spacecraft's main activity will be thrusting with a special, hyper-efficient ion engine that uses electricity to ionize and accelerate xenon. The 12-inch-wide ion thrusters provide less thrust than conventional engines, but will provide propulsion for years during the mission and provide far greater capability to change velocity.
"We feel a little like Columbus approaching the shores of the New World," said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, based at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). "The Dawn team can't wait to start mapping this Terra Incognita."
Dawn previously navigated by measuring the radio signal between the spacecraft and Earth, and used other methods that did not involve Vesta. But as the spacecraft closes in on its target, navigation requires more precise measurements. By analyzing where Vesta appears relative to stars, navigators will pin down its location and enable engineers to refine the spacecraft's trajectory. Using its ion engine to match Vesta's orbit around the sun, the spacecraft will spiral gently into orbit around the asteroid. When Dawn gets approximately 16,000 kilometers (9,900 miles) from Vesta, the asteroid's gravity will capture the spacecraft in orbit.
"After more than three-and-a-half years of interplanetary travel, we are finally closing in on our first destination," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We're not there yet, but Dawn will soon bring into focus an entire world that has been, for most of the two centuries scientists have been studying it, little more than a pinpoint of light."
Scientists will search the framing camera images for possible moons around Vesta. None of the images from ground-based and Earth-orbiting telescopes have seen any moons, but Dawn will give scientists much more detailed images to determine whether small objects have gone undiscovered.
The gamma ray and neutron detector instrument also will gather information on cosmic rays during the approach phase, providing a baseline for comparison when Dawn is much closer to Vesta. Simultaneously, Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer will take early measurements to ensure it is calibrated and ready when the spacecraft enters orbit around Vesta.
Dawn's odyssey, which will take it on a journey of 4.8-billion kilometers (3-billion miles), began on Sept. 27, 2007, with its launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will stay in orbit around Vesta for one year. After another long cruise phase, Dawn will arrive at its second destination, an even more massive body in the asteroid belt, called Ceres, in 2015.
These two icons of the asteroid belt will help scientists unlock the secrets of our solar system's early history. The mission will compare and contrast the two giant bodies, which were shaped by different forces. Dawn's science instrument suite will measure surface composition, topography and texture. In addition, the Dawn spacecraft will measure the tug of gravity from Vesta and Ceres to learn more about their internal structures.
The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of SMD's Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the Dawn spacecraft. The framing cameras have been developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau in Germany, with significant contributions by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering in Braunschweig. The framing camera project is funded by NASA, the Max Planck Society and DLR.
Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory