NASA Dawn Returns Images Of Vesta Or, The Space Program Is Not Dead
Reports of the death of the space program are greatly exaggerated.
With the return of the Shuttle Atlantis a lot of people seem to be writing obituaries for the space program. While it’s true that it will be 3-4 years before American astronauts are back in orbit on American rockets (a delay roughly equivalent to the gap between the last Apollo mission and the first Shuttle launch), that doesn’t mean we’re confining ourselves to Earth. While Altantis was preparing for its return to earth, a probe called Dawn was entering orbit of an asteroid named Vesta:
Nasa’s Dawn spacecraft has returned some remarkable new imagery of the asteroid Vesta, now that it is safely in orbit around the 530km-wide rock.
The pictures reveal the ancient body’s craters, slopes and grooves in detail that is far beyond the vision of Earth-bound telescopes, including Hubble.
Dawn scientists will have a busy year interpreting the asteroid’s features.
They will be looking for some fresh insight on how such objects came into being 4.6 billion years ago.
It is often said the asteroids, which dominate a region of space between Mars and Jupiter, are the rubble that was left over after the planets proper had formed.
“We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the Solar System,” said Dawn’s principal investigator Christopher Russell from the University of California, Los Angeles.
“This region of space has been ignored for far too long. So far, the images received to date reveal a complex surface that seems to have preserved some of the earliest events in Vesta’s history, as well as logging the onslaught that Vesta has suffered in the intervening eons.”
Dawn will spend a year surveying Vesta before moving on to bigger and better things:
Once it has completed its work at Vesta, the probe will move on to the even bigger rock, Ceres. With a diameter of roughly 950km, this world has a much more rounded shape and is classed as a “dwarf planet”, the same designation now ascribed to Pluto.
Ceres is actually classified as a minor planet and, unlike Vesta and other asteroids, has a core-mantle configuration similar to that of Earth and the other interior planets. It’s expected that exploring both bodies will add greatly to our knowledge about the formation of the Solar System and its early life, and may also help to provide evidence to determine how the Asteroid Belt came to be formed.
Dawn isn’t the only NASA mission that will be launched in the coming years. In August, Juno will be launched on a mission to Jupiter with an expected arrival date in August 2016. Later in the year, the Mars Science Laboratory, which includes a new Mars Rover named Curiosity, will head toward the red planet with an expected arrival date in August 2012 and is expected to operate for at least one Martian year (slightly under two Earth years). In February 2012, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array a space-based X-ray telescope, will be launched as part of the continuing mission to explore deep space and the origins of the universe. Sometime in 2017-2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, a space-based infrared telescope intended to replace the Hubble Space Telescope, will be launched and begin its mission. While this is going on, private entities like Space-X will be developing the commercial side of orbital launch vehicles, and NASA will be working on what is currently referred to as the Shuttle-Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle, a next-generation heavy-lift rocket designed to get manned American spacecraft into orbit, and beyond. In the meantime three U.S. launched probes — Pioneer 10, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 — have left the confines of the Solar System for the vast unknown beyond.
In other words, the space program did not die today. Manned launches may be on hiatus while we wait for the development and perfection of new launch technologies, but the space program is alive and well.
There’s one final thing about the Dawn mission that’s worth noting. The article I quote from at the top of this post comes from the BBC and I chose it because it was the most complete one I could find online. The Washington Post merely has a short blog-type article about the mission. The New York Times doesn’t seem to have written about the mission at all. CNN has an article about it on Friday. MSNBC did a story on Saturday. And there was no mention of the Dawn mission during the coverage of this morning’s shuttle landing.