Dawn Spacecraft Bound For Ceres Asteroid

By  //  October 2, 2012

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Delays Departure To Study Ceres Asteroid

BREVARD COUNTY • CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – If NASA’s Dawn spacecraft was having technical problems, it didn’t stop a successful burn that put it on course for a planned trip to a nearby asteroid.

An artist's depiction of the Dawn spacecraft on its eight-year mission to study asteroids Vesta and Ceres. (Image courtesy NASA/JPL)

NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said that Dawn malfunctioned in mid-August while in orbit of the asteroid Vesta between Mars and Jupiter.

Apparently one of the spacecraft’s reaction wheels sustained some kind of friction problem on Aug. 8 that was serious enough to delay the probe’s departure for the asteroid Ceres for 10 days.

But extra time orbiting Vesta gave engineers time to figure out how to repair the reaction wheel and the spacecraft was directed successfully in September to depart for Ceres.

The $450 million Dawn spacecraft was launched on a Delta 2 rocket in September 2007 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and arrived at Vesta last July on an eight-year mission to study asteroids.

Dawn is expected to arrive at Ceres in 2015.

The technical problem didn’t have a major impact on the mission because the Dawn spacecraft is equipped with four of the reaction wheels, which help position instruments and cameras aboard the probe.

The primary scientific objective of the Dawn spacecraft is to study the origin and evolution of the solar system through examination of the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt.

Both Vesta and Ceres seem to be intact after their formation about 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists hope to gain knowledge about basic plant formation from observations of these asteroids.