Friday, September 28, 2007

NASA‘s latest mission into space began yesterday when the probe Dawn was launched from Cape Canaveral at 7:34 a.m., headed on a 3.1-billion-mile journey to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

“Dawn has risen, and the spacecraft is healthy,” said Keyur Patel, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s mission project manager. “About this time tomorrow, we will have passed the moon’s orbit.”

But passing the moon, and even Mars, will not satisfy the minds behind this $450 million mission. Their interest lies in two massive 4-billion-year-old heavenly bodies: Vesta and Ceres. NASA hopes that observing these space rocks on the same trip with one set of equipment will allow for better comparison to learn more about the asteroid belt as a whole. Differing in size, shape and composition, Vesta and Ceres each holds its own allure to scientists.

Vesta, an asteroid estimated to be roughly the size of Arizona, appears to have a surface consisting largely of basaltic rock, or frozen lava, but is most interesting because of an enormous crater on its south pole. The massive gorge is the result of a huge collision that scattered bits of rock, some landing on Earth. NASA hopes Dawn will reach Vesta by late 2011 and stay for about seven months.

Ceres, scheduled to be reached by early 2015, is more spherical and significantly larger, comparable in width to Texas. It is the first body within the solar system to be declared a “dwarf planet.” Its significance, however, may be major. Scientists think Ceres has large quantities of water and speculate that Dawn might even discover frost-covered caps at its poles.

“To me, this feels like the first real interplanetary spaceship,” said Marc Rayman, chief engineer. “This is the first time we’ve really had the capability to go someplace, stop, take a detailed look, spend our time there and then leave.”

NASA plans to investigate how the bodies were created and how they have behaved.

“Dawn will travel back in time by probing deep into the asteroid belt,” said principal investigator Christopher Russell of the University of California at Los Angeles. “This is a moment the space science community has been waiting for since interplanetary spaceflight became possible.”

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