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Dawn at a Glance
May 25, 2011

During its nearly decade-long mission, the Dawn mission will study the asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres, celestial bodies believed to have accreted early in the history of the solar system. The mission will characterize the early solar system and the processes that dominated its formation.

artist concept of Dawn near Ceres and VestaImage right: Artist's concept of Dawn with Vesta and Ceres. Image credit: William K. Hartmann Courtesy of UCLA
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During the earliest epochs of our solar system, the materials in the solar nebula varied with their distance from the sun. As this distance increased, the temperature dropped, with terrestrial bodies forming closer to the sun, and icy bodies forming farther away.

The asteroid Vesta and the recently categorized dwarf planet Ceres have been selected because, while both speak to conditions and processes early in the formation of the solar system, they developed into two different kinds of bodies. Vesta is a dry, differentiated object with a surface that shows signs of resurfacing. It resembles the rocky bodies of the inner solar system, including Earth. Ceres, by contrast, has a primitive surface containing water-bearing minerals, and may possess a weak atmosphere. It appears to have many similarities to the large icy moons of the outer solar system.

Dawn baseline interplanetary trajectory for primary missionImage right: Dawn baseline interplanetary trajectory for primary mission. Dashed lines represent orbits of Mars, Vesta, and Ceres.
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By studying both these two distinct bodies with the same complement of instruments on the same spacecraft, the Dawn mission hopes to compare the different evolutionary path each took as well as create a picture of the early solar system overall. Data returned from the Dawn spacecraft could provide opportunities for significant breakthroughs in our knowledge of how the solar system formed.

To carry out its scientific mission, the Dawn spacecraft will carry three science instruments whose data will be used in combination to characterize these bodies. These instruments consist of a visible camera, a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer. In addition to these instruments, radiometric and optical navigation data will provide data relating to the gravity field and thus bulk properties and internal structure of the two bodies.

Mission Timeline
 

 

Launch September 27, 2007
Mars gravity assist February 2009
Vesta arrival July 2011
Vesta departure July 2012
Ceres arrival February 2015
End of primary mission July 2015
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Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator