June 2011

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is on track to begin the first extended visit to a large asteroid. The mission expects to go into orbit around Vesta on July 16 and begin gathering science data in early August. Vesta resides in the main asteroid belt and is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth.

Dawn Approaching Vesta"The spacecraft is right on target," said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We look forward to exploring this unknown world during Dawn's one-year stay in Vesta's orbit."

After traveling nearly four years and 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion kilometers), Dawn is approximately 96,000 miles (155,000 kilometers) away from Vesta. When Vesta captures Dawn into its orbit on July 16, there will be approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) between them. When orbit is achieved, they will be approximately 117 million miles (188 million kilometers) away from Earth.

Hubble and Dawn Views of VestaAfter Dawn enters Vesta's orbit, engineers will need a few days to determine the exact time of capture. Unlike other missions where a dramatic, nail-biting propulsive burn results in orbit insertion around a planet, Dawn has been using its placid ion propulsion system to subtly shape its path for years to match Vesta's orbit around the sun.

Images from Dawn's framing camera, taken for navigation purposes, show the slow progress toward Vesta. They also show Vesta rotating about 65 degrees in the field of view. The images are about twice as sharp as the best images of Vesta from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, but the surface details Dawn will obtain are still a mystery.

"Navigation images from Dawn's framing camera have given us intriguing hints of Vesta, but we're looking forward to the heart of Vesta operations, when we begin officially collecting science data," said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, at UCLA. "We can't wait for Dawn to peel back the layers of time and reveal the early history of our solar system."

Dawn's three instruments are all functioning and appear to be properly calibrated. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, for example, has started to obtain images of Vesta that are larger than a few pixels in size. During the initial reconnaissance orbit, at approximately 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers), the spacecraft will get a broad overview of Vesta with color pictures and data in different wavelengths of reflected light. The spacecraft will move into a high-altitude mapping orbit, about 420 miles (680 kilometers) above the surface to systematically map the parts of Vesta's surface illuminated by the sun; collect stereo images to see topographic highs and lows; acquire higher-resolution data to map rock types at the surface; and learn more about Vesta's thermal properties.

Dawn then will move even closer, to a low-altitude mapping orbit approximately 120 miles (200 kilometers) above the surface. The primary science goals of this orbit are to detect the byproducts of cosmic rays hitting the surface and help scientists determine the many kinds of atoms there, and probe the protoplanet's internal structure. As Dawn spirals away from Vesta, it will pause again at the high-altitude mapping orbit. Because the sun's angle on the surface will have progressed, scientists will be able to see previously hidden terrain while obtaining different views of surface features.

"We've packed our year at Vesta chock-full of science observations to help us unravel the mysteries of Vesta," said Carol Raymond, Dawn's deputy principal investigator at JPL. Vesta is considered a protoplanet, or body that never quite became a full-fledged planet.

Dawn launched in September 2007. Following a year at Vesta, the spacecraft will depart for its second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, in July 2012. Dawn's mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission team. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena

After nearly three months in orbit about Mercury, MESSENGER's payload is providing a wealth of new information about the planet closest to the Sun, as well as a few surprises.

Targeted color imaging – Degas craterThe spacecraft entered orbit around Mercury on March 18, 2011 UTC, becoming the first spacecraft ever to do so. Tens of thousands of images of major features on the planet — previously seen only at comparatively low resolution — are now available in sharp focus. Measurements of the chemical composition of Mercury's surface are providing important clues to the origin of the planet and its geological history. Maps of the planet's topography and magnetic field are revealing new clues to Mercury's interior dynamical processes. And scientists now know that bursts of energetic particles in Mercury's magnetosphere are a continuing product of the interaction of Mercury's magnetic field with the solar wind.

This week, MESSENGER completed is first perihelion passage from orbit, its first superior solar conjunction from orbit, and its first orbit-correction maneuver. "Those milestones provide important context to the continuing feast of new observations that MESSENGER has been sending home on nearly a daily basis,” offers MESSENGER Principal investigator Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

A Surface Revealed in Unprecedented Detail

Among the fascinating features seen in MESSENGER flyby images of Mercury were bright, patchy deposits on some crater floors. Without high-resolution images to obtain a closer look, these features remained a curiosity. New targeted Mercury Dual Imaging System images at up to 10 meters per pixel reveal these patchy deposits to be clusters of rimless, irregular pits varying in size from hundreds of meters to several kilometers. These pits are often surrounded by diffuse halos of higher-reflectance material, and they are found associated with central peaks, peak rings, and rims of craters.

"The etched appearance of these landforms is unlike anything we've seen before on Mercury or the Moon," says Brett Denevi, a staff scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., and a member of the MESSENGER imaging team. "We are still debating their origin, but they appear to have a relatively young age and may suggest a more abundant than expected volatile component in Mercury's crust."

Magnetic field lines differ at Mercury's north and south poles
Mercury's Surface Composition

The X-ray Spectrometer (XRS) — one of two instruments on MESSENGER designed to measure the abundances of many key elements on Mercury — has made several important discoveries since the orbital mission began. The magnesium/silicon, aluminum/silicon, and calcium/silicon ratios averaged over large areas of the planet's surface show that, unlike the surface of the Moon, Mercury's surface is not dominated by feldspar-rich rocks.

XRS observations have also revealed substantial amounts of sulfur at Mercury's surface, lending support to prior suggestions from ground-based telescopic spectral observations that sulfide minerals are present. This discovery suggests that the original building blocks from which Mercury was assembled may have been less oxidized than those that formed the other terrestrial planets, and it has potentially important implications for understanding the nature of volcanism on Mercury.

Mapping of Mercury's Topography and Magnetic Field

MESSENGER's Mercury Laser Altimeter has been systematically mapping the topography of Mercury's northern hemisphere. After more than two million laser-ranging observations, the planet's large-scale shape and profiles of geological features are both being revealed in high detail. The north polar region of Mercury, for instance, is a broad area of low elevations. The overall range in topographic heights seen to date exceeds 9 kilometers.

Two decades ago, Earth-based radar images showed that around both Mercury's north and south poles are deposits characterized by high radar backscatter. These polar deposits are thought to consist of water ice and perhaps other ices preserved on the cold, permanently shadowed floors of high-latitude impact craters. MESSENGER's altimeter is testing this idea by measuring the floor depths of craters near Mercury's north pole. To date, the depths of craters hosting polar deposits are consistent with the idea that those deposits occupy areas in permanent shadow.

Energetic Particle Events at Mercury

One of the major discoveries made by Mariner 10 during the first of its three flybys of Mercury in 1974 were bursts of energetic particles in Mercury's Earth-like magnetosphere. Four bursts of particles were observed on that flyby, so it was puzzling that no such strong events were detected by MESSENGER during any of its three flybys of the planet in 2008 and 2009. With MESSENGER now in near-polar orbit about Mercury, energetic events are being seen almost like clockwork.

"We are assembling a global overview of the nature and workings of Mercury for the first time,” adds Solomon, "and many of our earlier ideas are being cast aside as new observations lead to new insights. Our primary mission has another three Mercury years to run, and we can expect more surprises as our solar system's innermost planet reveals its long-held secrets."

First complete image of the solar far side of the sun

The far side unveiled! This is the first complete image of the solar far side, the half of the sun invisible from Earth. Captured on June 1, 2011, the composite image was assembled from NASA's two Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft. STEREO-Ahead's data is shown on the left half of image and STEREO-Behind's data on the right.

The STEREO spacecraft reached opposition (180° separation) on February 6 but part of the sun was inaccessible to their combined view until June 1. This image represents the first day when the entire far side could be seen.

The image is aligned so that solar north is directly up. The seam between the two images is inclined because the plane of Earth’s -- and STEREO's -- orbit, known as the "ecliptic", is inclined with respect to the sun's axis of rotation. The data was collected by STEREO's Extreme Ultraviolet Imagers in the SECCHI instrument suites.

STEREO was built and is operated for NASA by the Applied Physical Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University; the spacecraft were launched on October 25, 2006 aboard a Delta II. The SECCHI instrument suite is a collaboration led by the Naval Research Laboratory, and the EUVI instruments were built by the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory.

Tornado Track near Sturbridge, Massachusetts

On June 1, 2011, a supercell thunderstorm developed over western Massachusetts. The storm produced an EF3 tornado that cut a 39-mile (63-kilometer) track of destruction across southwest and south-central Massachusetts. Not only did the long-lived tornado remain on the ground for many miles, but it also widened to 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers).

The Thematic Mapper on the Landsat 5 satellite captured this natural-color image on June 5, 2011. This image shows part of the tornado track, including damage in Sturbridge. According to the Boston Globe, Massachusetts state police reported a tornado on the ground in Sturbridge at 5:22 p.m. The tornado was spotted on the Interstate 84 exit, and cars were overturned.

The Boston Globe reported that the Massachusetts governor declared a state of emergency and ordered National Guard troops to assist with cleanup efforts. Tornadoes on June 1 killed at least four residents of the state, as well as reducing homes, schools, and churches to rubble.

The Landsat Program is a series of Earth-observing satellite missions jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Since 1972, Landsat satellites have collected information about Earth from space. This science, known as remote sensing, has matured with the Landsat Program.


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