Space & Innovation

Safe Mode Slows Dawn Mission's Progress to Ceres

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has resumed normal operations after a high-energy particle event forced the mission to enter safe mode, knocking its ion drive offline. Continue reading →

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has resumed normal operations after a high-energy particle event forced the mission to enter safe mode, knocking its ion drive offline. Although mission managers deduced the source of the problem and restarted its propulsion systems, the unexpected hiccup will likely delay Dawn's arrival at dwarf planet Ceres.

PHOTOS: Psychedelic Landscapes of Asteroid Vesta

Safe mode was triggered on Sept. 11 and it is thought the same phenomenon that triggered a safe mode three years ago during Dawn's approach to giant asteroid Vesta is to blame for this incident. A high-energy cosmic ray hit the spacecraft's ion drive electronics, disabling it.

In addition to the ion drive glitch, Dawn's main antennae that the spacecraft uses to communicate with Earth was also knocked offline, meaning engineers had to decipher the problem using Dawn's secondary, lower bandwidth antennae.

"This anomaly presented the team with an intricate and elaborate puzzle to solve," said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

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"We followed the same strategy that we implemented three years ago to recover from a similar radiation strike - to swap to one of the other ion engines and a different electronic controller so we could resume thrusting quickly," said Dawn Mission Director and Chief Engineer Marc Rayman also of JPL. "We have a plan in place to revive this disabled component later this year."

Normal operations recommenced on Sept. 15, but a valuable few days of thrusting had been lost, meaning Dawn will reach Ceres later than planned.

Ion drives work by accelerating charged particles through an electric field, providing a tiny amount of thrust. Though the thrust is minuscule compared with conventional rocket engines, ion drives use tiny quantities of fuel, meaning they can operate for years. The "slow-yet-steady" approach means that Dawn can have an extended mission exploring our solar system's asteroid belt, visiting the two largest objects in the belt years apart.

Now on its way to Ceres, mission managers expect Dawn to enter orbit by April 2015, a month later than planned.

Source: JPL

Artist concept of NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbiting Ceres during an upcoming flyby.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbited the massive asteroid Vesta in 2011 and 2012, giving us an unprecedented look at the protoplanet's landscape, craters and mineral composition. The probe, which is now on its way to dwarf planet Ceres, not only revealed the evolution of Vesta, it also provided vital clues as to the evolution of our solar system. Now,

in new images published by NASA

, an unusually colorful Vesta landscape is on display. Using data from the mission, scientists at Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany have produced a rather psychedelic view of this otherwise bland landscape. Dawn's camera system is equipped with seven filters, each filter sensitive to a specific wavelength of light. Normally, Vesta would look gray to the naked eye, but when analyzing the ratios of light through Vesta's filters, the landscape pops with color. Shown here, the flow of material inside and outside a crater called Aelia is demonstrated. As different minerals reflect and absorb different wavelengths of light, this composite image is alive with color, each shade representing different kinds of minerals littering Vesta's landscape.

This is Antonia, a crater located inside the huge Rheasilvia basin in the southern hemisphere of Vesta. From this image, planetary scientists have been able

to deduce that

"the light blue material is fine-grain material excavated from the lower crust. The southern edge of the crater was buried by coarser material shortly after the crater formed. The dark blue of the southern crater rim is due to shadowing of the blocky material."

The impact crater Sextilia can be seen in the lower right of this image. The mottled dark patches are likely impact ejecta from a massive impact and the redish regions are thought to be rock that melted during the impact. The diversity of the mineralogy is obvious here. "No artist could paint something like that. Only nature can do this," said Martin Hoffman, a member of the framing camera team at Max Planck Institute.

Earlier images of Vesta have shown an unusual "pitted terrain" on the floors of the craters named Marcia (left) and Cornelia (right). Once again, the varied colors demonstrate the different minerals and processes that cover Vesta's surface.


"global" model

of Vesta shows the abundance of hydrogen on Vesta's surface. Note that the hydrogen signal is enhanced near the asteroid's equator. The hydrogen is likely from hydroxyl or water bound to minerals in Vesta's surface.

Another, earlier view of Antonia crater, demonstrating the mineral diversity of the region.

This is the distinctive Oppia crater on Vesta, an impact that occurred on a slope. This produced an asymmetric ejecta distribution around the crater -- the red/orange ejecta material is more abundant around the downward slope than around the upward portion.