Mission to Vesta

Roamy here.  Early this morning, the Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around the asteroid Vesta.

I got a rock.

It will remain there for a year then move to orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres.  (I am not getting into the whole dwarf-planet / proto-planet / what-do-we-call-Pluto-now argument.)

The Dawn spacecraft uses ion propulsion, similar to the engines used on Deep Space 1.  Deep Space 1 had a similar mission, rendezvousing with the asteroid Braille and Comet Borrelly.  Ion thrusters have higher specific impulse but less thrust.  You can’t launch a satellite with an ion thruster, but there’s a lot of weight savings for missions like this.  Ion thrusters have also been used for satellite stationkeeping.

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