Saturday, March 7, 2015

Dawn arriving at Ceres today

Yesterday, Vox gave its readers 6 reasons why NASA's mission to Ceres is a big deal.
Tomorrow, NASA's Dawn spacecraft will reach Ceres, an icy dwarf planet that lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

This event likely won't get the coverage Philae got when it landed on a comet this past November. It might not even get as much attention as a few recent space accidents, such as the explosions of a Virgin Galactic space plane and uncrewed rocket this past October.

That's a shame. Because tomorrow will be the culmination of a seven-year mission to visit something remarkable — a world that's quite close to us, but is such an unknown that, until a month or so ago, the best pictures we had of it looked like a hazy blob.
JPL posted a video earlier this week showing the progression from "a hazy blob" to a cratered world, followed by animation of the orbital insertion that begins today and continues for another month: Dawn Nears Ceres - Approach Images, Movies and Animations.  There is no sound.

NASA's Dawn mission will arrive at Ceres on March 6, 2015, and will be the first spacecraft to explore a dwarf planet. Ceres is the largest body in the main asteroid belt. At the time of its discovery in 1801 it was considered a planet and later demoted.
This is the second large asteroid Dawn has visited.  As Vox points out:
A handful of previous missions have used ion thrusters, but Dawn has taken advantage of them to do something unprecedented: it entered Vesta's orbit, left it, and will now enter Ceres', becoming the first spacecraft to ever orbit two different interplanetary objects.
That's one of the six reasons.  Follow over the jump for two more.

GeoBeats News covers the second of six reasons why the Dawn mission is a big deal in Mystery Bright lights on Dwarf Planet Perplex NASA.

You can always count on NASA to boldly go where no human has gone before and make some truly amazing finds along the journey.

One of their most recent thrilling discoveries comes via the Dawn spacecraft, which is barreling towards Ceres and taking a lot of celestial snapshots on the way.

It’s captured images of two bright, reflective spots nestled in a crater on the dwarf planet.
People have already taken on interest in these bright spots, as evidenced by a comment to May Leonard Nimoy's memory live long and prosper.
Mr. Spock Mr. Nimoy

Petition to name the aberrantly fascinating, bright features of the dwarf planet Ceres (see picture) after the magnanimous character Mr. Spock and the Right and Honorable Mr. Leonard Simon Nimoy. Given the timeliness of recent events, the logic and prudence are sublime. That is all. #SPOCKNIMOY #LLAP
That didn't take long at all.  As for the comment itself, I approve.

The other reason is a depressing one.
The past few decades have been filled with all sorts of fascinating missions to the planets, moons, asteroids, and comets of our solar system — uncrewed probes sent every few years, run by trained scientists, and supported by government funding.

But the sad truth is that this era is largely drawing to a close. This coming July, the New Horizons probe will visit Pluto. But after that, writes David W. Brown in an article on the dark future of American space exploration, "there is nothing budgeted in the pipeline to take its place. Yesterday invested in today. But we are not investing in tomorrow."

This is the result of cutbacks to NASA's planetary exploration budget. The OSIRIS-Rex probe will launch next year, to travel to an asteroid and bring back a sample, but it won't return until 2023. Meanwhile, a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa is in the works, but it likely won't be launched until 2025 at the earliest, and wouldn't reach Europa until the 2030s.

In other words: enjoy this mission to Ceres, and New Horizon's arrival at Pluto. After that, it's going to be a while before any NASA probe visits a new world.
Looks like it's not just crewed spaceflight that's showing signs of the tragic science-fiction plot of abandoning space.  It's unmanned exploration as well.  Here's to rooting for Orion.  Otherwise, as Ugo Bardi fears, humanity has already seen peak spaceflight.

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