The probe is on an exciting journey to unlock secrets from the dawn of the solar system ensconced in the mysterious worlds Vesta and Ceres. The data that Dawn gathers will help scientists understand how the planets formed and, ultimately, how Earth evolved into a habitable planet. And yet there is one aspect of this expedition that likely is much less exciting than some readers may expect.
Dawn entered the main asteroid belt on November 13. As it ventures ever deeper into this vast collection of material between Mars and Jupiter, it may be tempting to think of the spacecraft constantly dodging asteroids. In some science fiction movies, the huge rocky bodies are so close together that highly skilled piloting is required to avoid catastrophes. Now Dawn is guided by some of the most proficient interplanetary fliers this side of Pluto, but the reality is that accidental impacts are exceedingly unlikely. Space is big, and as plentiful as asteroids are, the distances between them are tremendous.
After crossing the threshold of the belt earlier this month, Dawn will travel 7.7 astronomical units (AU), or nearly 1.2 billion kilometers (almost 720 million miles), to its July 2011 rendezvous with Vesta. Yet in all that time, and across all that distance, the closest the probe will come to a catalogued asteroid is 1.0 million kilometers (greater than 600 thousand miles), or more than 2.5 times the distance between Earth and the moon. Certainly travelers on Earth would not consider something that far away to be a hazard (especially compared to what many Dawn team members regularly experience on the freeways in Los Angeles), and neither would our intrepid explorer.
Dawn is bound for the giants of the asteroid belt. Vesta’s equatorial diameter is about 580 kilometers (360 miles), and Ceres is 975 km (605 miles) across. (Remember that when thinking about three-dimensional worlds such as these, the diameter may fail to illustrate how large they really are.) Together these two behemoths contain more than a third of all the mass in the main asteroid belt. On the scale of our cross-country drive, Vesta would be 2.0 meters (6.5 feet) wide and Ceres would be 3.3 meters (11 feet). Rather than missing them by great distances, we would move to within 0.6 meters (2 feet) of the first target and 2.4 meters (8 feet) of the second.
Dawn’s science instruments are optimized for studying these immense bodies in detail from orbit around them, just as many Earth-observation spacecraft peer down constantly on our planet. Diverting the probe to zip past a chunk of rock for a very brief view would be possible, but doing so would take precious time away from the far richer and more valuable investigations planned for Vesta. That is where Dawn will find the rewards of the next 20 months of travel.
The spacecraft was designed so that the tiniest particles, which are sufficiently plentiful that some likely will strike it, cannot inflict significant damage. Dawn’s largest area is in its solar arrays, and asteroidal dust cracking a few of the 11,480 cells is inconsequential. More sensitive components are covered with protective materials that will cause the high-speed grains to break up and slow down before they reach the vulnerable elements. There is good reason to believe Dawn’s travels in the asteroid belt will be safe.
Even as Dawn recedes from the sun, Earth (moving faster in its tighter solar orbit) is approaching the spacecraft; indeed, the distance has been decreasing for more than a year (and will continue to do so for another 2 months). On December 5, the craft and the star will be equidistant from the planet. We saw instances of these 3 members of the solar system family forming a triangle with 2 equal sides, known as an isosceles triangle, on May 28, 2008 and again on September 18 of this year. In those cases however, the equal sides were those between Dawn and Earth and between Dawn and the sun. Next month, it will be Earth at the apex of the astronomical triangle, with both the spacecraft and the sun at a distance of 0.99 AU. The third leg of the triangle, from Dawn to the sun, will be 1.70 AU.
To illustrate the geometry, let’s use one of the new clocks that have just reached the shelves of the Dawn gift shop on your planet. (And note that for any purchase through the end of 2009, we will donate a used xenon ion to the charity of your choice.) With Earth at the center of the clock face, if the sun were at the 10, Dawn would be the same distance but at the 2. (The clock hands are not important here; the objective is to illustrate the relative lengths and the angles of the isosceles triangle. Ignoring the hands also lets us offer the clock at a very low price!)
To add more dimensions to our mental imagery of Dawn’s location, we can take advantage of another celestial reference on December 6, before the triangular alignment of the previous day has changed noticeably. At about 8:30 am PST, the spacecraft will appear just over 2 degrees (or a little more than 4 times the moon’s diameter) north of the moon. As the moon’s orbit carries it around Earth, it will be less than twice that far from the apparent position of the spacecraft for the 6 hours before and after that time, so anyone who can see the moon during that interval can get a rough fix on Dawn’s location. For readers in North America, the alignment occurs when the moon is the western sky after dawn (yes!). From the vantage point of the center of the clock, observers may be able to see both the sun and the approximate location of the spacecraft at the same distance, letting their imaginations take over where their eyes leave off. Out there, in that direction, as far as the sun, will be Dawn, patiently, reliably, silently continuing its bold voyage of exploration.
Dawn is 1.03 AU (154 million kilometers or 96 million miles) from Earth, or 395 times as far as the moon and 1.05 times as far as the sun. Radio signals, traveling at the universal limit of the speed of light, take 17 minutes to make the round trip.