Dear Abundawnt Readers
The dwarf planet Ceres is a giant mystery. Drawn on by the irresistible lure of exploring this exotic, alien world, Dawn is closing in on it. The probe is much closer to Ceres than the moon is to Earth.
And now it is even closer…
And now it is closer still!
What has been glimpsed as little more than a faint smudge of light amidst the stars for more than two centuries is finally coming into focus. The first dwarf planet discovered (129 years before Pluto), the largest body between the sun and Pluto that a spacecraft has not yet visited, is starting to reveal its secrets. Dawn is seeing sights never before beheld, and all of humankind is along for the extraordinary experience.
We have had a preview of Dawn’s approach phase, and in November we looked at the acrobatics the spacecraft performs as it glides gracefully into orbit. Now the adventurer is executing those intricate plans, and it is flying beautifully, just the way a seasoned space traveler should.
Dawn’s unique method of patiently, gradually reshaping its orbit around the sun with its ion propulsion system is nearly at its end. Just as two cars may drive together at high speed and thus travel at low speed relative to each other, Dawn is now close to matching Ceres’ heliocentric orbital motion. Together, they are traveling around the sun at nearly 39,000 mph (almost 64,000 kilometers per hour), or 10.8 miles per second (17.4 kilometers per second). But the spaceship is closing in on the world ahead at the quite modest relative speed of about 250 mph (400 kilometers per hour), much less than is typical for interplanetary spaceflight.
Dawn has begun its approach imaging campaign, and the pictures are wonderfully exciting. This month, we will take a more careful look at the plans for photographing Ceres. Eager readers may jump directly to the summary table, but others may want to emulate the spacecraft by taking a more leisurely approach to it, which may aid in understanding some details.
While our faithful Dawn is the star of this bold deep-space adventure (along with protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres), the real talent is behind the scenes, as is often the case with celebrities. The success of the mission depends on the dedication and expertise of the members of the Dawn flight team, no farther from Earth than the eighth floor of JPL’s building 264 (although occasionally your correspondent goes on the roof to enjoy the sights of the evening sky). They are carefully guiding the distant spacecraft on its approach trajectory and ensuring it accomplishes all of its tasks.
To keep Dawn on course to Ceres, navigators need a good fix on where the probe and its target are. Both are far, far from Earth, so the job is not easy. In addition to the extraordinarily sophisticated but standard methods of navigating a remote interplanetary spacecraft, using the radio signal to measure its distance and speed, Dawn’s controllers use another technique now that it is in the vicinity of its destination.
From the vantage point of Earth, astronomers can determine distant Ceres’ location remarkably well, and Dawn’s navigators achieve impressive accuracy in establishing the craft’s position. But to enter orbit, still greater accuracy is required. Therefore, Dawn photographs Ceres against the background of known stars, and the pictures are analyzed to pin down the location of the ship relative to the celestial harbor it is approaching. To distinguish this method from the one by which Dawn is usually navigated, this supplementary technique is generally known as “optical navigation.” Unable to suppress their geekiness (or, at least, unmotivated to do so), Dawn team members refer to this as OpNav. There are seven dedicated OpNav imaging sessions during the four-month approach phase, along with two other imaging sessions. (There will also be two more OpNavs in the spiral descent from RC3 to survey orbit.)
The positions of the spacecraft and dwarf planet are already determined well enough with the conventional navigation methods that controllers know which particular stars are near Ceres from Dawn’s perspective. It is the analysis of precisely where Ceres appears relative to those stars that will yield the necessary navigational refinement. Later, when Dawn is so close that the colossus occupies most of the camera’s view, stars will no longer be visible in the pictures. Then the optical navigation will be based on determining the location of the spacecraft with respect to specific surface features that have been charted in previous images.
To execute an OpNav, Dawn suspends ion thrusting and turns to point its camera at Ceres. It usually spends one or two hours taking photos (and bonus measurements with its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer). Then it turns to point its main antenna to Earth and transmits its findings across the solar system to the Deep Space Network.
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