Orbital Environment for Dawn Spacecraft at Vesta

Press Release From: Planetary Science Institute
Posted: Monday, October 4, 2010

image A detailed study of the dynamics of the Dawn spacecraft as it orbits the large Arizona-sized, non-spherical asteroid Vesta next summer in 2011 reveals one of the most complex operational environments for a NASA mission to date. This work has implications for future mission planning to other large asteroids.

A paper on the research titled "The Dynamical Environment of Dawn at Vesta" by Pasquale Tricarico, Associate Research Scientist with the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., and PSI Director Mark Sykes was recently published in Planetary and Space Science.

The Dawn spacecraft is using an efficient ion-propulsion system that enables it to make the first ever double rendezvous. After completing its study of Vesta, Dawn will depart and orbit the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015.

Ion propulsion generates very gentle acceleration over long periods of time, in contrast with chemical propulsion that produces high thrust over short periods of time, Tricarico said. Dawn currently uses this system to provide propulsion for its voyage to Vesta. Ion propulsion will also be used to slowly transit from high to low mapping orbits. Close passes are expected to reveal the dramatic surface of what was a planetary embryo, including the crater from a giant impact event thought to result in about 6 percent of the meteorites falling on the Earth, he said.

"One of our goals was to figure out how low of an orbit Dawn could get to without endangering the mission," said Tricarico. "The closer you get, the better the imaging resolution and the greater the ability of the Gamma-Ray and Neutron Detector to determine the elemental composition of Vesta's surface." The Dawn GRaND instrument is run by PSI Senior Scientist Tom Prettyman.

The hypothesized gravity field from Vesta's irregular shape combined with Dawn's slow changes in orbit results in certain altitudes at which Dawn could experience significant orbital perturbations as it passes through resonances. Simulations indicate that when Dawn passes through the altitude at which its orbital period equals Vesta's 5.4 hour rotational period, the spacecraft could hypothetically become "trapped" in its orbit. Data from these simulations indicate that such trapping could be escaped by thrusting at the appropriate orbital phase.

"The perturbations look dramatic when plotted, but in actuality what the spacecraft experiences is more like an extremely gentle ocean swell. These effects on Dawn's orbit present some interesting operational challenges, but nothing that either threatens the spacecraft or risks the success of the mission," Sykes said.

Once through these resonance regions, Tricarico determined that the spacecraft would be safe down to an average orbital radius of 400 km -- a minimum of 110 km above the surface.

"This is well below the lowest orbital radius of 460 km, planned by Dawn's navigation team, giving the spacecraft a good margin of safety," said Tricarico. "Other operational factors limit the altitude at which the spacecraft can operate."

The research is relevant not just for Dawn, but also or future missions to non-spherical bodies.

"Missions using low-thrust ion propulsion are going to become very popular because they give you very cost-effective access to targets and create the ability to do multiple target missions," he said.

"The present work used in-house open source software, previously developed, which we are happy to provide to colleagues in support of their future mission planning activities," said Tricarico.

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Additional information about Dawn is online:

This work was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under subcontract from UCLA to the Planetary Science Institute in support of the Dawn Discovery Mission.

The Dawn mission to asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres is managed by JPL, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The University of California, Los Angeles is responsible for overall Dawn mission science.

The Planetary Science Institute is a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to solar system exploration. It is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, where it was founded in 1972. PSI scientists are involved in numerous NASA and international missions, the study of Mars and other planets, the Moon, asteroids, comets, interplanetary dust, impact physics, the origin of the solar system, extra-solar planet formation, dynamics, the rise of life, and other areas of research. They conduct fieldwork in North America, Australia and Africa. They also are actively involved in science education and public outreach through school programs, children's books, popular science books and art. PSI scientists are based in 17 states, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Russia and Australia.

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