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After spending a year gazing at a giant asteroid, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Wednesday began the cruise toward an even bigger target — a voyage that will take nearly three years.

Ground controllers received a signal from Dawn that it successfully spiraled away from the asteroid Vesta and was headed toward the dwarf planet Ceres.

The departure was considered ho-hum compared with other recent missions — think Curiosity’s white-knuckle “seven minutes of terror” dive into Mars’ atmosphere. Firing its ion propulsion thrusters, Dawn gently freed itself from Vesta’s gravitational hold Tuesday night. Since its antenna was pointed away from Earth during the maneuver, NASA did not get confirmation until the next day.

It was “smooth and elegant and graceful,” said chief engineer Marc Rayman of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $466 million mission.

Launched in 2007, Dawn is on track to become the first spacecraft to rendezvous with two celestial bodies in a bid to learn about the solar system’s evolution.

Dawn slipped into orbit last year around Vesta — about the size of Arizona — and beamed back stunning close-ups of the lumpy surface. Its next destination is the Texas-size Ceres.

ARIZONA

Tribe boosts jail time for reservation crime

FLAGSTAFF — The Hopi Tribe will be one of the earliest tribes to increase criminal sentences under a landmark federal law meant to improve public safety on American Indian reservations.

The Hopi has updated its criminal code for the first time since 1972 with changes that comply with provisions of the Tribal Law and Order Act. Regardless of whether the crime was murder or something far less severe on the Northern Arizona reservation, all were misdemeanors with a maximum punishment of a year in jail under the tribe’s long-standing system.

The changes go into effect later this month. They create a class of felonies that could send convicted offenders to jail for up to three years for a single crime or nine years with stacked sentences.

A U.S. Department of Justice official says that puts the Hopi in a position of leadership.

From wire dispatches and staff reports