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NASA's Dawn Probe Enters Orbit Around Vesta

NASA’s plucky Dawn spacecraft has been hurtling through space since 2007, but today it finally made contact with it’s target: The giant asteroid Vesta. Dawn is now in orbit some 9,900 miles above Vesta, which is the second most massive object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

For NASA, the Dawn mission is full of firsts. The mission to Vesta is the first time a man-made craft has entered orbit around an asteroid belt object, and will bring the agency much needed data for a possible asteroid landing in the near future. It’s also the first time that NASA has used an ion engine on an exploratory craft. This means of propulsion produces very little thrust, but does so continuously for long periods of time using very little fuel. Thanks to this highly efficient engine, in a year’s time Dawn will become the first spacecraft to leave orbit around one body and enter orbit around a second target: the asteroid-belt dwelling dwarf planet Ceres.

Beyond these milestones, the focus of the mission is to learn as much as possible about the large bodies within the asteroid belt. It’s believed that were Jupiter to not exist, these rocky chunks and proto-planets would have formed a rocky planet along that orbit. By studying these fragments, scientists hope to learn more about the early solar system, and how planets are formed. There’s also the tantalizing, though admittedly remote, possibility that Dawn’s second target Ceres could harbor some form of life. Scientists believe Ceres to have a rocky core, and perhaps abundant water ice near the surface, and Dawn will help answer some vital questions about the dwarf planet’s makeup.

It’s clear that Dawn will have a long and fascinating mission ahead of it. These strange chunks of rock are not well understood, and the data from Dawn will likely yield many surprising results. And perhaps someday, humans will be able to use the data gathered by Dawn to navigate to travel to these strange, small worlds themselves.

For those interested, the Dawn spacecraft Twitter is a great source for developing news on the mission.

(NASA, Twitter, image via Wikipedia)

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