NASA is going to send the Dawn spacecraft closer to the dwarf planet Ceres than ever before, swooping to just 30 kilometers (18 miles) above the surface.
Dawn has been in orbit around Ceres since 2015, having orbited the protoplanet Vesta previously from 2011 to 2012. It’s the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial objects.
In October this year, NASA decided to extend the mission around Ceres until at least the second half of 2018, or until the spacecraft fails.
During a talk at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans on December 12, deputy principal investigator for the mission Carol Raymond outlined some of the new plans for the mission.
“We’re going to be using an elliptical orbit to dive closer to the surface than we have before, down to 30 kilometers altitude,” she said, reported SpaceNews. That’s 13 times lower than the International Space Station (ISS) orbits Earth. The previous closest approach for the mission was 385 kilometers (240 miles).
This new close approach will allow Dawn to take better images of the surface than ever before. Recent discoveries have made Ceres all the more interesting, with evidence suggesting it may have had a global ocean in the past.
The dwarf planet continues to be alluring today, with bright spots on the planet – thought to be salt-rich material – hinting at possible geologic activity. The face of the dwarf planet may even still be changing today.
Mission planners hope to move Ceres into its new orbit in spring 2018, when it will be able to continue these close swoops for three to four months. After that, it’s thought that its supplies of hydrazine – used to orientate the spacecraft – will run out.
Once it has exhausted its fuel, it will be unable to point its antenna at Earth and communicate with us. At this point, the spacecraft will have been put into a parking orbit, where it will be left to orbit the dwarf planet for the rest of its days.
This elliptical orbit certainly makes for an exciting end to the mission though, with the hope that it will tell us more about the origin and evolution of Ceres. There is plenty more interesting science to come that will no doubt keep scientists busy for years after the mission has concluded.