31 Jul
2014
Marc Rayman
Marc Rayman
Chief Engineer/ Mission Director, JPL

Dawn Journal | July 31

by Marc Rayman
 

Dear Studawnts and Teachers,

Patient and persistent, silent and alone, Dawn is continuing its extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition. Flying through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the spacecraft is using its advanced ion propulsion system to travel from Vesta, the giant protoplanet it unveiled in 2011 and 2012, to Ceres, the dwarf planet it will reach in about eight months.

Most of these logs since December have presented previews of the ambitious plan for entering orbit and operating at Ceres to discover the secrets this alien world has held since the dawn of the solar system. We will continue with the previews next month. But now with Dawn three quarters of the way from Vesta to Ceres, let’s check in on the progress of the mission, both on the spacecraft and in mission control at JPL.

The mission is going extremely well. Thank you for asking.

For readers who want more details, read on…

The spacecraft, in what is sometimes misleading called quiet cruise, has spent more than 97 percent of the time this year following the carefully designed ion thrust flight plan needed to reshape its solar orbit, gradually making it more and more like Ceres’ orbit around the sun. This is the key to how the ship can so elegantly enter into orbit around the massive body even with the delicate thrust, never greater than the weight of a single sheet of paper.

The probe is equipped with three ion engines, although it only uses one at a time. (The locations of the engines were revealed shortly after launch when the spacecraft was too far from Earth for the information to be exploited for tawdry sensationalism.) Despite the disciplined and rigorous nature of operating a spaceship in the main asteroid belt, the team enjoys adding a lighthearted touch to their work, so they refer to the engines by the zany names #1, #2, and #3.

Dawn & TIE Fighter comparison

Artist’s comparison of Dawn spacecraft and Star Wars TIE Fighter.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Darth Vader and his Empire cohorts in Star Wars flew TIE — twin ion engine — Fighters in their battles against Luke Skywalker and others in the Rebel Alliance. Outfitted with three ion engines, Dawn does the TIE Fighters one better. We should acknowledge, however, that the design of the TIE Fighters did appear to provide greater agility, perhaps at the expense of fuel efficiency. Your correspondent would concur that when you are trying to destroy your enemy while dodging blasts from his laser cannons, economy of propellant consumption probably shouldn’t be your highest priority.

All three engines on Dawn are healthy, and mission controllers consider many criteria in formulating the plan for which one to use. This called for switching from thruster #2 to thruster #1 on May 27. Thruster #1 had last been used to propel the ship on Jan. 4, 2010. After well over four years of inaction in space, it came to life and emitted the famous blue-green beam of high velocity xenon ions right on schedule (at 4:19:19 pm PDT, should you wish to take yourself back to that moment), gently and reliably pushing the spacecraft closer to its appointment with Ceres.

Artist concept showing Dawn thrusting with ion engine #1.

Artist’s concept illustrating the Dawn spacecraft pointing ion engine #1 in the direction needed for thrusting. Following this example, see the two images below, in which the spacecraft rotates to different orientations to ensure the other ion engines point in this same direction. The solar arrays are always aimed at the sun. Credit: NASA/JPL

Artist concept showing Dawn thrusting with ion engine #2.

Artist’s concept illustrating the Dawn spacecraft rotated to point ion engine #2 for thrusting in the same direction as in the images above and below. Credit: NASA/JPL

Artist concept showing Dawn thrusting with ion engine #3.

Artist’s concept illustrating the Dawn spacecraft rotated to point ion engine #3 for thrusting in the same direction as in the two images above. Credit: NASA/JPL

Without the tremendous capability of ion propulsion, a mission to orbit either Vesta or Ceres alone would have been unaffordable within NASA’s Discovery program. A mission to orbit both destinations would be altogether impossible. The reason ion propulsion is so much more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion is that it can turn electrical energy into thrust. Chemical propulsion systems are limited to the energy stored in the propellants.

Thanks to Dawn’s huge solar arrays, electrical energy is available in abundance, even far from the brilliant sun. To make accurate predictions of the efficiency of the solar cells as Dawn continues to recede from the sun, engineers occasionally conduct a special calibration. As we described in more detail a year ago, they command the robot to rotate its panels to receive less sunlight, simulating being at greater solar distances, as the ion propulsion system is throttled to lower power levels. Following the first such calibration on June 24, 2013, we assured readers (including you) that we would repeat the calibration as Dawn continued its solar system travels. So you will be relieved to know that it was performed again on Oct. 14, Feb. 3, and May 27, and another is scheduled for Sept. 15. Having high confidence in how much power will be available for ion thrusting for the rest of the journey allows navigators to plot the best possible course. Dawn is on a real power trip!

The reason for going to Ceres, besides it being an incredibly cool thing to do, is to use the suite of sophisticated sensors to learn about this mysterious dwarf planet. (In December, we will describe what is known about Ceres, just in time for it to change with Dawn’s observations.) Controllers activated and tested the cameras and all the spectrometers this summer, verifying that they remain in excellent condition and as ready to investigate the uncharted lands ahead as they were for the fascinating lands astern. The engineers also installed updated software in the primary camera in June and are ready to install it in the backup camera next month to enhance some of the devices’ functions. All of the scientific instruments are normally turned off when Dawn is not orbiting one of its targets. They will be powered on again in October for a final health check before the approach phase, during which they will provide our first exciting new views of Ceres.

To achieve a successful mission at Ceres, in addition to putting the finishing touches on the incredibly intricate plans, the operations team works hard to take good care of the spacecraft, ensuring it stays healthy and on course. In the remote depths of space, the robot has to be able to function on its own most of the time, but it does so with periodic guidance and oversight by its human handlers on a faraway planet. That means they need to stay diligent, keep their skills sharp, and remain watchful for any indications of undesirable conditions. On July 22, the team received information showing that Dawn was in safe mode, a special configuration invoked by onboard software to protect the spacecraft and the mission, preventing unexpected situations from getting out of control.

As engineers inspected the trickle of telemetry, they began to discover that this was a more dire situation than they had ever seen for the distant craft. Among the surprises was an open circuit in one of the pressurized cells of the nickel-hydrogen battery, a portion of the reaction control system that was so cold that its hydrazine propellant was in danger of freezing, temperatures elsewhere on the spacecraft so low that the delicate cameras were at risk of being damaged, and a sun sensor with degraded vision. To make it still more complicated, waveguide transfer switch #5, used to direct the radio signal from the transmitter inside the spacecraft to one of its antennas for beaming to Earth, was stuck and so would not move when software instructed it to. Other data showed that part of the computer memory was compromised by space radiation. As if all that were not bad enough, one of the two star trackers, devices that recognize patterns of stars just as you might recognize constellations to determine your orientation at night without a compass or other aids, was no longer functional. Further complicating the effort to get the mission back on track was an antenna at the Deep Space Network that needed to be taken out of service for emergency repairs. And the entire situation was exacerbated by Dawn already being in its lowest altitude orbit around Ceres (the subject of next month’s log), so for part of every 5.5-hour orbital revolution, it was out of contact as the world beneath it blocked the radio signal.

Confronted with an almost bewildering array of complex problems, the team of experts spent three days working through them with their usual cool professionalism, ultimately finding ways to overcome each obstacle to continue the mission. It would be extraordinarily, even unbelievably, unlikely for so many separate problems to stack up so quickly, even for a ship in the severe conditions of deep space, more than 232 million miles (374 million kilometers) from Dawn mission control on the top floor of JPL’s building 264. However, it easily can happen in an operational readiness test (ORT, pronounced letter by letter and not as a word, for those readers who want to conduct their own ORTs). The telemetry came from the spacecraft simulator, just down the hall from the mission control room, and the problems were the fiendishly clever creations of the ORT mastermind. (So now you may calm down, reassured that the scenario just described did not actually happen.)

The team conducted ORTs (and even an ORTathon) before launch in 2007, before Vesta in 2011, and as recently as May 2013. They will hold another in August.

While mission controllers exercised their skills in the ORT, the real spacecraft continued streaking through the asteroid belt, its interplanetary travels bringing it 45 thousand miles (73 thousand kilometers) closer to Ceres each day. But it is not only the Dawn team members who are part of this adventure. The stalwart explorer is transporting everyone who ever gazes in wonder at the night sky, everyone who yearns to know what lies beyond the confines of our humble home, and everyone awed by the mystery, the grandeur, and the immensity of the cosmos. Fueled by their passionate longing, the journey holds the promise of exciting new knowledge and thrilling new insights as a strange world, glimpsed only from afar for more than two centuries, is soon to be unveiled.

Dawn is 4.2 million miles (6.7 million kilometers) from Ceres. It is also 2.67 AU (248 million miles, or 399 million kilometers) from Earth, or 995 times as far as the moon and 2.63 times as far as the sun today. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 44 minutes to make the round trip.

Dr. Marc D. Rayman
6:00 p.m. PDT July 31, 2014

All Dawn Journal entries


 

30 Jun
2014
Marc Rayman
Marc Rayman
Chief Engineer/ Mission Director, JPL

Dawn Journal | June 30

by Marc Rayman
 

Dear Mastodawns,

Deep in the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter, far from Earth, far from the sun, far now even from the giant protoplanet Vesta that it orbited for 14 months, Dawn flies with its sights set on dwarf planet Ceres. Using the uniquely efficient, whisper-like thrust of its remarkable ion propulsion system, the interplanetary adventurer is making good progress toward its rendezvous with the uncharted, alien world in about nine months.

Dawn’s ambitious mission of exploration will require it to carry out a complex plan at Ceres. In December, we had a preview of the “approach phase,” and in January, we saw how the high velocity beam of xenon ions will let the ship slip smoothly into Ceres’s gravitational embrace. We followed that with a description in February of the first of four orbital phases (with the delightfully irreverent name RC3), in which the probe will scrutinize the exotic landscape from an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). We saw in April how the spacecraft will take advantage of the extraordinary maneuverability of ion propulsion to spiral from one observation orbit to another, each one lower than the one before, and each one affording a more detailed view of the exotic world of rock and ice. The second orbit, at an altitude of about 2,730 miles (4,400 kilometers), known to insiders (like you, faithful reader) as “survey orbit,” was the topic of our preview in May. This month, we will have an overview of the plan for the third and penultimate orbital phase, the “high altitude mapping orbit” (HAMO).

(The origins of the names of the phases are based on ancient ideas, and the reasons are, or should be, lost in the mists of time. Readers should avoid trying to infer anything at all meaningful in the designations. After some careful consideration, your correspondent chose to use the same names the Dawn team uses rather than create more helpful descriptors for the purposes of these logs. What is important is not what the different orbits are called but rather what amazing new discoveries each one enables.)

It will take Dawn almost six weeks to descend to HAMO, where it will be 910 miles (1,470 kilometers) high, or three times closer to the mysterious surface than in survey orbit. As we have seen before, a lower orbit, whether around Ceres, Earth, the sun, or the Milky Way galaxy, means greater orbital velocity to balance the stronger gravitational grip. In HAMO, the spacecraft will complete each loop around Ceres in 19 hours, only one quarter of the time it will take in survey orbit.

Sprial to Hamo

Dawn’s spiral descent from survey orbit to the high altitude mapping orbit. The trajectory progresses from blue to red over the course of the six weeks. The red dashed segments are where the spacecraft is not thrusting with its ion propulsion system (as explained in April). Credit: NASA/JPL

Read the rest of this entry »


 

31 May
2014
Marc Rayman
Marc Rayman
Chief Engineer/ Mission Director, JPL

Dawn Journal | May 31

by Marc Rayman
 

Dear Dawnosaurs,

Silently streaking through the main asteroid belt, emitting a blue-green beam of xenon ions, Dawn continues its ambitious interplanetary expedition. On behalf of creatures on distant Earth who seek not only knowledge and insight but also bold adventure, the spacecraft is heading toward its appointment with Ceres. In about 10 months, it will enter orbit around the ancient survivor from the dawn of the solar system, providing humankind with its first detailed view of a dwarf planet.

This month we continue with the preview of how Dawn will explore Ceres. In December we focused on the “approach phase,” and in January we described how the craft spirals gracefully into orbit with its extraordinary ion propulsion system. The plans for the first observational orbit (with a marvelously evocative name for a first examination of an uncharted world: RC3 — is that cool, or what?), at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers), were presented in FebruaryLast month, we followed Dawn on its spiral descent from each orbital altitude to the next, with progressively lower orbits providing better views than the ones before. Now we can look ahead to the second orbital phase, survey orbit.

Survey_orbit

This figure shows Dawn’s second observational orbit, “survey orbit,” at the same scale as the size of Ceres. At an altitude of 2,730 miles (4,400 kilometers), the spacecraft will make seven revolutions in about three weeks. Credit: NASA/JPL

In survey orbit, Dawn will make seven revolutions at an altitude of about 2,730 miles (4,400 kilometers). At that distance, each orbit will take three days and three hours. Mission planners chose an orbit period close to what they used for survey orbit at Vesta, allowing them to take advantage of many of the patterns in the complex choreography they had already developed. Dawn performed it so beautifully that it provides an excellent basis for the Ceres encore. Of course, there are some adjustments, mostly in the interest of husbanding precious hydrazine propellant in the wake of the loss of two of the spacecraft’s four reaction wheels. (Although such a loss could have dire consequences for some missions, the resourceful Dawn team has devised a plan that can achieve all of the original objectives regardless of the condition of the reaction wheels.)

Read the rest of this entry »


 

29 May
2014

Greetings From Berlin–Grüße aus Berlin!

by Chris Russell
 

The Dawn Team Converges at the German Aerospace Agency

The Dawn spacecraft moved back in solar system time when it cruised into the main asteroid belt, first orbiting protoplanet Vesta in 2011-12, and now on its way to dwarf planet Ceres, due in March 2015. When the Dawn team met in Berlin this month, it offered an opportunity for the mission to do a bit of its own time travel.

Dawn Team at the German Aerospace Agency, Berlin, 2014

fig 1: Dawn Team at the German Aerospace Agency, Berlin, 2014

Read the rest of this entry »


 

23 May
2014

Vesta 360

by David O'Brien
 

The Dawn mission is currently en route to dwarf planet Ceres, its second destination. It spent a productive fourteen months orbiting its first destination, giant asteroid Vesta, in 2011-12, gathering splendid sets of data. The spacecraft may have moved on, but the science team continues to explore that data, enriching our understanding of Vesta’s formation and history.

Getting the “Big Picture”

Vesta: Clementine color ratios

Clementine color ratios

Vesta is a large protoplanet with remarkably variable topography—mountains, troughs, boulders, craters, cliffs, and more. The wealth of high-resolution imaging data from the Dawn mission has given us an amazing view of its surface. However, looking through individual frames or image mosaics can make it difficult to see its surface features in a global context and get the “big picture” of Vesta. On the other hand, the images taken early on as the mission approached the protoplanet show the whole of Vesta, but with low surface resolution. To better visualize Vesta at high resolution, I used the open-source program POV-Ray[1], combining images and topography data to create striking 3-D graphics.

The program let me take a shape model of Vesta, created from Dawn’s framing camera data by Bob Gaskell at the Planetary Science Institute, and wrap an image around it. For the image, I used a global mosaic[2] developed by our framing camera team partners at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) from high altitude mapping orbit clear-filter images. This mosaic has a resolution of 60 meters (about 200 feet) per pixel. I then used POV-Ray to make ‘snapshots’ of this model of Vesta as it rotated, varying the latitude from +45 to -45 degrees. Those individual frames were combined into the movie shown below.

Read the rest of this entry »


Footnotes:
  1. [1] Persistence of Vision Raytracer
  2. [2] The global mosaics used here can be downloaded from this page at the Dawn Public Data website, although they are very large files. For labeled maps of smaller regions of the surface, see the Vesta Atlas.

 

2 May
2014
Marc Rayman
Marc Rayman
Chief Engineer/ Mission Director, JPL

The Hundredth Journal

by Marc Rayman
 
Colleague Keri Bean's festive (and delicious) cake

Colleague Keri Bean’s festive (and delicious) cake with some of the greetings used in the Dawn Journals.

I have been captivated by space since I was four years old, and my enthusiasm has grown stronger and stronger ever since. With a lifelong passion for the exploration and utilization of space, covering the science, the engineering and the pure thrill of a cosmic adventure, working on a mission to explore some of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system has been a dream come true for me. My work is indescribably exciting.

And although it literally is indescribable, I can’t help but try! As one facet of that effort, I started writing the Dawn Journal eight years ago. Now that I have written 100, I was invited to write a short blog to celebrate. (In other words, I’ve been asked to blog about blogging.)

Read the rest of this entry »


 

30 Apr
2014
Marc Rayman
Marc Rayman
Chief Engineer/ Mission Director, JPL

Dawn Journal | April 30

by Marc Rayman
 

Dear Compedawnt Readers,

Less than a year from its rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres, Dawn is continuing to make excellent progress on its ambitious interplanetary adventure. The only vessel from Earth ever to take up residence in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the spacecraft grows more distant from Earth and from the sun as it gradually closes in on Ceres. Dawn devotes the majority of its time to thrusting with its remarkable ion propulsion system, reshaping its heliocentric path so that by the time it nears Ceres, the explorer and the alien world will be in essentially the same orbit around the sun.

Dawn thrusting in orbit

Dawn will use its ion propulsion system to change orbits at Ceres, allowing it to observe the dwarf planet from different vantage points. Image credit: NASA/JPL

In December, we saw what Dawn will do during the “approach phase” to Ceres early in 2015, and in January, we reviewed the unique and graceful method of spiraling into orbit. We described in February the first orbit (with the incredibly cool name RC3) from which intensive scientific observations will be conducted, at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). But Dawn will take advantage of the extraordinary capability of ion propulsion to fly to three other orbital locations from which it will further scrutinize the mysterious world.

Let’s recall how the spacecraft will travel from one orbit to another. While some of these plans may sound like just neat ideas, they are much more than that; they have been proven with outstanding success. Dawn maneuvered extensively during its 14 months in orbit around Vesta. (One of the many discussions of that was in November 2011.) The seasoned space traveler and its veteran crew on distant Earth are looking forward to applying their expertise at Ceres.

Read the rest of this entry »


 

31 Mar
2014
Marc Rayman
Marc Rayman
Chief Engineer/ Mission Director, JPL

Dawn Journal | March 31

by Marc Rayman
 

Dear Correspondawnts,

Powering its way through deep space, Dawn draws ever closer to dwarf planet Ceres. To reach its destination, the interplanetary spaceship gently reshapes its path around the sun with its extraordinary ion propulsion system. In about a year, the spacecraft will gracefully slip into orbit so it can begin to unveil the nature of the mysterious world of rock and ice, an intriguing protoplanetary remnant from the dawn of the solar system.

Even as Dawn ascends the solar system hill, climbing farther and farther from the sun, penetrating deeper into the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, its distance to Earth is shrinking. This behavior may be perplexing for readers with a geocentric bias, but to understand it, we can take a broader perspective.

Read the rest of this entry »


 

21 Mar
2014

Space Inspired “Nerd Couture”

by Dawn EPO
 
Two Dawn engineers showing off their nail art

Dawn mission-inspired nail art matches the spacecraft’s solar panels.

Dawn Rocks the Community

Two members of the Dawn mission have taken space exploration to a new level, combining space—and fashion. Meet Keri Bean and Kristina Larson. Keri is a member of Dawn’s science operations team and Kristina works for the spacecraft flight team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Their shared interest in “nerd couture” brought them together, as well as their obsession with space nail art. They like wearing fashionable clothing that also expresses their interests in space science and other “nerdy” topics. From space shuttle shoes to Dawn-inspired solar panel nails, they wear it all!

Keri Bean Dawn mission science operations, and Kristina Larson, Dawn spacecraft flight team

Keri Bean, Dawn mission science operations, and Kristina Larson, Dawn spacecraft flight team, sporting “nerd couture”

In her role in science planning and sequencing, Keri acts as the interface between different off-site science team members and the spacecraft operations team at JPL.  While an undergrad and grad student at Texas A&M University, Keri was on science teams for multiple Mars missions and now uses those skills in exploring the two largest bodies in the asteroid belt.

Kristina does similar work as part of the engineering operations team by planning and sequencing engineering activities, as well as sending commands to the spacecraft and testing them on the testbed.  She has interned on Dawn since her sophomore year at USC, where she got her undergrad and grad degrees in Aerospace Engineering. Kristina worked previously on a Mars rover as a Tactical Downlink Lead, planning activities for the rover and analyzing downlinked data.

Keri Bean and her space dress, accented by her Dawn Lego model!

Keri Bean and her space dress, accented by her Dawn Lego model!

They hope to continue to share their unique and quirky styles as well as glam ideas through the eyes of two young women and hopefully teach you about Dawn along the way—so stay tuned!


 

28 Feb
2014
Marc Rayman
Marc Rayman
Chief Engineer/ Mission Director, JPL

Dawn Journal | February 28, 2014

by Marc Rayman
 

Dear Ardawnt Readers,

Continuing its daring mission to explore some of the last uncharted worlds in the inner solar system, Dawn remains on course and on schedule for its rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres next year. Silently and patiently streaking through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the ardent adventurer is gradually reshaping its orbit around the sun with its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system. Vesta, the giant protoplanet it unveiled during its spectacular expedition there in 2011-2012, grows ever more distant.

Dawn will  uses ion propulsion system to spiral to RC3 orbit

Following its gravitational capture by Ceres during the approach phase, Dawn will continue to use its ion propulsion system to spiral to RC3 orbit at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers). Credit: JPL/NASA

In December and January, we saw Dawn’s plans for the “approach phase” to Ceres and how it will slip gracefully into orbit under the gentle control of its ion engine. Entering orbit, gratifying and historic though it will be, is only a means to an end. The reason for orbiting its destinations is to have all the time needed to use its suite of sophisticated sensors to scrutinize these alien worlds.

As at Vesta, Dawn will take advantage of the extraordinary capability of its ion propulsion system to maneuver extensively in orbit at Ceres. During the course of its long mission there, it will fly to four successively lower orbital altitudes, each chosen to optimize certain investigations. (The probe occupied six different orbits at Vesta, where two of them followed the lowest altitude. As the spacecraft will not leave Ceres, there is no value in ascending from its fourth and lowest orbit.) All of the plans for exploring Ceres have been developed to discover as much as possible about this mysterious dwarf planet while husbanding the precious hydrazine propellant, ensuring that Dawn will complete its ambitious mission there regardless of the health of its reaction wheels.

Read the rest of this entry »