Earlier this year, some of us were left somewhat disappointed by the news that NASA’s Dawn spacecraft would remain in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, rather than heading to an exciting new third destination.
With that proposal rejected, scientists are now making the most of the current situation, which is still exciting in its own right. Dawn will be orbiting Ceres as it moves closer to the Sun, possibly changing its surface as it heats up, giving us a new insight into this interesting world.
Now, after spending eight months in a low-altitude orbit just 385 kilometers (240 miles) above the surface, Dawn will be moved up to a higher orbit of 1,460 kilometers (910 miles). It will begin the maneuvers to reach this orbit tomorrow.
Moving to a higher orbit will allow the spacecraft to remain in operation for longer, as it’ll need to use less fuel to work against the gravity of Ceres. The direction of its orbit around Ceres will also be changed slightly, giving Dawn a different vantage point of the surface.
"Most spacecraft wouldn't be able to change their orbital altitude so easily,” said Marc Rayman, chief engineer and mission director for Dawn, in a statement. “But thanks to Dawn's uniquely capable ion propulsion system, we can maneuver the ship to get the greatest scientific return from the mission.”
Dawn, thanks to its ion engine, is the only spacecraft in history to orbit two separate bodies other than Earth. It arrived at its first target, the protoplanet Vesta in the asteroid belt, in July 2011, before arriving at Ceres in March 2015.
Its primary mission ended on June 30 this year, when there had been a proposal on the table to send Dawn to an unprecedented third destination, flying past an asteroid in the asteroid belt called Adeona. Alas, that was not to be – but hopefully there’s still some exciting science in store at Ceres, where Dawn will spend the rest of its days.