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Cerere and Dawn closer than ever

Dawn mission, new orbit for a close-up examination

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is changing its orbit. In these days Dawn is maneuvering to its lowest-ever orbit for a close-up examination of Ceres and, in early June, Dawn will reach its new, final orbit above the dwarf planet. This orbit will be less than 50 kilometers above the surface of Ceres, 10 times closer than the spacecraft has ever been. From that moment on, it will begin collecting images and other science data from that unprecedented vantage point.

The transfer to a new orbit is not an easy matter. Engineers worked for months to plot the course for Dawn’s second extended mission and mapped out more than 45,000 possible trajectories before devising a plan that will allow the best science observations. Dawn will collect gamma ray and neutron spectra, which help scientists understand variations in the chemical makeup of Ceres’ uppermost layer.  “The team is eagerly awaiting the detailed composition and high-resolution imaging from the new, up-close examination,” said Dawn’s Principal Investigator Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “These new high-resolution data allow us to test theories formulated from the previous data sets and discover new features of Ceres.”

Since its launch on Sept. 27, 2007, Dawn has achieved numerous technical and scientific feats while traveling more than 6 billion kilometers. The spacecraft has been exploring the two largest bodies in the main asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres, to uncover new insights into our solar system. It entered Ceres’ orbit in March 2015. More detailed information about Dawn’s travel plans is in Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal. Rayman is Dawn’s mission director and chief engineer.

The Dawn mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. JPL is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.