Dawn concludes 2011 more than 40 thousand times nearer to Vesta than it began the year. Now at its lowest altitude of the mission, the bold adventurer is conducting its most detailed exploration of this alien world and continuing to make thrilling new discoveries.
Circling the protoplanet 210 kilometers (130 miles) beneath it every 4 hours, 21 minutes on average, Dawn is closer to the surface than the vast majority of Earth-orbiting satellites are to that planet. There are two primary scientific objectives of this low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). With its gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND), the probe is measuring the faint emanations of these subatomic particles from Vesta. Some are the by-products of the bombardment by cosmic rays, radiation that pervades space, and others are emitted through the decay of radioactive elements.
Vesta does not glow brightly when observed in nuclear particles, so GRaND needs to measure the radiation for weeks at this low altitude. This is analogous to using a long exposure with a camera to photograph a dimly lit subject. If GRaND only detected the radiation, it would be as if it took a black and white picture, but this sophisticated instrument does more.
It measures the energy of each particle, just as a camera can measure the color of light. The energies reveal the identities of the elements that constitute the uppermost meter (yard) of the surface. Dawn devotes most of its time now flying over Vesta to collecting the glimmer of radiation. It requires a long time, but this spacecraft has demonstrated tremendous patience in its use of the gentle but efficient ion propulsion system that made the mission possible, so it can be patient in making these measurements.
The second motivation for diving down so low is to be close enough that Vesta’s interior variations in density affect the spacecraft’s orbit discernibly. We have seen before that the distribution of mass inside the protoplanet reveals itself through the changing strength of its gravitational tug on Dawn. Exquisitely sensitive measurements of the ship’s course can be translated into a three-dimensional map of the mass. In the plans discussed for LAMO one year ago, the delicate tracking of the spacecraft required pointing the main antenna to Earth.
That provides a radio signal strong enough to achieve the required accuracy. Since then, navigators have determined that the radio signal received from one of the craft’s auxiliary antennas, although far weaker, is sufficient. The main antenna broadcasts a tight beam, whereas the others emit over a much larger angle, exchanging signal strength for flexibility in pointing.
This allows an extremely valuable improvement. The spacecraft cannot aim GRaND at the surface and the main antenna at Earth concurrently, because both are mounted rigidly, just as you cannot simultaneously point the front of your car north and the back east. Therefore, in the original plan, gravity measurements and GRaND measurements were mutually exclusive. Now, as Dawn turns throughout its orbit to keep Vesta in GRaND’s sights, it can transmit a weak radio signal that is just perceptible at Earth. This enables an even greater science return for the time in LAMO.
Unlike the science camera and the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR), GRaND and gravity observations do not depend on the sun’s illumination of the surface. Even as it orbits over a dark, cold, silent landscape, Dawn is fully capable of continuing to build its maps of elements and the interior structure.
The signal from the auxiliary antenna is just sufficient for the measurement of the spacecraft’s motion, but it is not strong enough to carry data as well. So the spacecraft is still programmed to point its main antenna to Earth three times each week, allowing the precious GRaND observations that have been stored in computer memory to be transmitted. As always, the myriad measurements of temperatures, voltages, currents, pressures, and other parameters that engineers use to ensure the health of the ship are returned during these communications sessions as well.
Although the pictures of Vesta from survey orbit and the high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO) have exceeded scientists’ expectations, not only in quality and quantity but also in the truly fascinating content, as enthusiastic explorers, the Dawn team could not pass up the opportunity for more. When GRaND is pointed at the surface, the camera is too, and already well over one thousand images have been returned, revealing detail three times finer than the spectacular images from HAMO.
In addition to the bonus photography, beginning in January VIR will take observations. Although the instrument has already acquired nearly seven million spectra in the higher orbits, this new vantage point will allow sharper resolution, just as it does for the camera.
The ultra-long-distance communication between Dawn and Earth requires extraordinary technology on both ends. Even with all the sophistication, the amount of information that can be transmitted in a given time remains very limited. The remote spacecraft sends data at speeds significantly lower than a typical home Internet connection.
Engineers use that precious communications link very carefully, judiciously selecting what information to instruct the probe to return. Because of the high priority given to GRaND, which needs to be pointed at the surface as long as possible, much of the limited time spent with the main antenna aimed at Earth is devoted to transmitting that instrument’s findings (and the measurements of spacecraft subsystems). This restricts how much data from the camera and VIR can be communicated.
In the next log, we will see another limitation on the number of camera images and VIR spectra in LAMO. It is a consequence of another aspect of the complex operations in this low orbit around a massive body, and that is the small but real differences between the predicted orbit and the actual orbit. We will cover the first part of the explanation here.
Navigators use their best knowledge of the many forces acting on Dawn to chart an orbital course for it. The forces can be traced to three principal sources: gravity, light, and Dawn itself. We have discussed all of these before in detail (see, for example, this explication of the last two), but let’s review them here. This is an involved story, so readers are advised to be in a comfortable orbit while following it. You can safely skip the next four paragraphs and no one ever need know.
Vesta has a complicated gravity field, and that leads to a complicated orbit. The spacecraft does not follow a perfectly circular, repetitive path because the gravitational pull on it changes according to where it is as the colossus beneath it rotates and it loops around. The map of the gravity field has been improving throughout Dawn’s residence there, but its completion awaits the LAMO gravity measurements. In the meantime, unknown details of the variation of mass lead to small divergences in the orbit.
All the other bodies in the solar system exert gravitational pulls on the spacecraft as well (just as they do on you), but those are more easily accounted for. The distances from Dawn are so great that the variations in their gravity fields don’t matter. So although the effects of the faraway objects need to be accounted for, they do not contribute much to the discrepancies.
Dawn depends on sunlight for its power, using its large solar arrays to make electricity to run all systems. The sun also propels the spacecraft, because in the frictionless conditions of spaceflight, the ship recoils slightly in response to the miniscule but persistent pressure of the light. The force depends on whether the light is absorbed (whereupon it is converted to electrical power by the arrays or to heat by whatever component it illuminates) or reflected.
If it is reflected, the angle makes a difference, so smooth shiny surfaces that act like mirrors cause different effects from the materials that present a matte finish or are curved or angled. As the spacecraft rotates to keep GRaND pointed at the ground below, different parts of the ship are presented to the sun, so the force from the light changes, and the orbit is constantly subjected to a variable disturbance.
Dawn itself adds to the complexity of its orbital path. The spacecraft carries reaction wheels, which are spun to help it control its orientation. These devices gradually spin faster, so every few days they need to be slowed down. That is accomplished by firing the small reaction control system thrusters during windows specified by mission controllers. In addition to the thrusters providing the needed torque on the craft to reduce the wheels’ speeds, they impart a force that changes the orbit slightly.
The physical principles underlying all these phenomena that perturb Dawn’s orbit are understood with exceptional clarity. Although the values of the myriad parameters involved are ascertained quite accurately, they are not known perfectly. As a result, navigators’ prediction of the ship’s course includes some degree of uncertainty. Even their ability to determine the present orbit is subject to a variety of small errors typical in sensitive physical measurements.
For all of these reasons, the craft’s actual orbit departs slightly from the plan, and the deviations tend to grow, albeit gradually. As designers expected, in survey orbit and HAMO, the differences were small enough that they did not affect the complex operations plans. Analysis well before Dawn arrived at Vesta predicted that the discrepancies in LAMO would be large enough that occasional adjustments of the orbit would be necessary. Therefore, mission controllers scheduled a window every week (on Saturdays, as it turned out) to use the ion propulsion system to fine-tune the spacecraft’s trajectory, bringing it back to the intended orbit.
These are known as “orbit maintenance maneuvers,” and succumbing to instincts developed during their long evolutionary history, engineers refer to them by an acronym: OMM. (As the common thread among team members is their technical training and passion for the exploration of the cosmos, and not Buddhism, the term is spoken by naming the letters, not pronouncing it as a means of achieving inner peace. Instead, it may be thought of as a means of achieving orbital tranquility and harmony.)
The LAMO phase began on December 12, and OMMs were performed on December 17 and 24. In contrast to the long periods of thrusting required with ion propulsion for other parts of the mission, the corrections needed were so small that each OMM needed less than 15 minutes. The whisper-like thrust changed the spacecraft’s speed by less than five centimeters per second (one-tenth of a mph). But that was enough to nudge Dawn back to the planned orbit.
The ship was so close to the designated course that the OMMs for December 31 and even January 7 have already been canceled. Not executing the OMMs allows the probe to spend more time collecting neutrons and gamma rays from Vesta. The operations team productively uses the time saved in designing, checking, and transmitting the OMM commands to do other work to ensure LAMO proceeds smoothly and productively.
In the last log we discussed the complicated and dynamic spiral descent from HAMO to LAMO, which was still in progress. The flight required not only reducing the altitude from 680 kilometers (420 miles) to 210 kilometers (130 miles) but also twisting the plane of Dawn’s orbit around Vesta. As with all orbiting bodies, whether around Vesta, Earth, or the sun, the lower the orbital altitude, the shorter the orbital period. Vesta’s gravitational grip strengthened as Dawn closed in, forcing the spacecraft to make faster loops around it. This meant that as the probe performed the intricate choreography to align its ion thruster with the changing direction needed to alter its orbit, it had to pirouette faster.
When engineers command Dawn to rotate, they usually instruct it to use the same stately speed as the minute hand on a clock. The spacecraft may have to move a little faster however, as it pivots to keep its solar arrays pointed at the sun while accomplishing the required turn. Sometimes it knows that at the end of a turn, it will have to initiate another turn. For example, it may rotate to the orientation required to begin a session of ion thrusting.
But while it is thrusting and curving around its orbit, it generally needs to steer the thruster to execute the maneuver. As a result, the robot may choose to turn at a slightly different rate from what its human team members command in order to make a smooth transition from the first turn to the second.
On Dec. 3, when preparing for one of the final thrust segments required to reach LAMO, the combination of all these factors caused the spacecraft to rotate faster than usual. That led to a temporary discrepancy between where it was pointed and where it expected to be pointed during the turn. When protective software detected the inconsistency, it interrupted the ongoing activities and put the spacecraft into safe mode.
When the safe mode signal was received by the Deep Space Network, the operations team responded with its usual calm and skill. They quickly determined that Dawn was fully healthy, diagnosed the cause of the safing, and began guiding the spacecraft back to its normal operational configuration. In addition, they devised a new flight profile that would compensate for the thrusting that was not completed.
The team also determined how to prevent the same problem from recurring for subsequent maneuvers. While doing all this work, they were putting the finishing touches on the first LAMO science observation sequences. Controllers managed to complete everything flawlessly and even kept the mission on schedule, allowing LAMO to commence on Dec. 12.
The general plan for Dawn’s three-month approach plus one year in orbit around Vesta was described in logs in 2010. The time was apportioned among the different science phases and the transfers between science orbits to ensure a comprehensive and balanced exploration of this mysterious and fascinating world.