The Dawn Mission

dawn missionThe Dawn mission was designed to study two large bodies in the asteroid belt in order to answer questions about the formation of the Solar System, as well as to test the feasibility of its ion drive. Ceres and Vesta were chosen as two contrasting protoplanets, the first one apparently “wet” (i.e. icy and cold) and the other “dry” (i.e. rocky), whose accretion was terminated by the formation of Jupiter. The two bodies provide a bridge in scientific understanding between the formation of rocky planets and the icy bodies of the Solar System, and under what conditions a rocky planet can hold water.

The IAU adopted a new definition of planet on August 24, 2006, which introduced the term “dwarf planet” for ellipsoidal worlds that were too small to qualify for planetary status by “clearing their orbital neighborhood” of other orbiting matter. If the IAU’s definition stands and the spacecraft experiences no delays, Dawn will become the first mission to study a dwarf planet, arriving at Ceres five months prior to the arrival of the New Horizons probe at Pluto in July 2015.

Ceres is a dwarf planet whose mass comprises about one-third of the total mass of the bodies in the asteroid belt, and whose spectral characteristics suggest a composition similar to that of a water-rich carbonaceous chondrite. Vesta, a smaller, water-poor achondritic asteroid, has experienced significant heating and differentiation. It shows signs of a metallic core, a Mars-like density and lunar-like basaltic flows.

Both bodies formed very early in the history of the Solar System, thereby retaining a record of events and processes from the time of the formation of the terrestrial planets. Radionuclide dating of pieces of meteorites thought to come from Vesta suggests that Vesta differentiated quickly, in only three million years. Thermal evolution studies suggest that Ceres must have formed some time later, more than three million years after the formation of CAIs (the oldest known objects of Solar System origin).

A Dawn image of Vesta from orbit, taken on July 17, 2011.

A Dawn image of Vesta from orbit, taken on July 17, 2011.

Moreover, Vesta is the source of many smaller objects in the Solar System. Most (but not all) V-type near-Earth asteroids, and some outer main-belt asteroids, have spectra similar to Vesta, and are thus known as vestoids. Five percent of the meteoritic samples found on Earth, the howardite–eucrite–diogenite (HED) meteorites, are thought to be the result of a collision or collisions with Vesta.

In 2005, Peter Thomas of Cornell University proposed that Ceres has a differentiated interior; its oblateness appears too small for an undifferentiated body, which indicates that it consists of a rocky core overlain with an icy mantle. There is a large collection of potential samples from Vesta accessible to scientists, in the form of over 200 HED meteorites, giving insight into Vestan geologic history and structure. Vesta is thought to consist of a metallic iron–nickel core, an overlying rocky olivine mantle, and a surface crust. Via Dawn

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