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Highs and Lows of Exploring the Giant Asteroid

2 Mar 2012, 21:30 UTC
Highs and Lows of Exploring the Giant Asteroid
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By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft investigates its first target, the giant asteroid Vesta, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn’s framing cameras. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech |
› Full image and caption
Dear Ups and Dawns,
Dawn is continuing its exploits at Vesta, performing detailed studies of the colossal asteroid from its low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO). The robotic ambassador is operating extremely well on behalf of the creatures it represents on a distant planet. On this second intercalary day of its ambitious adventure, the spacecraft is doing exactly what it was designed to do: exploring a previously uncharted alien world.
Although we usually describe LAMO as being at an average altitude of 210 kilometers (130 miles), that does not mean it is at a constant altitude. As we saw on the fourth anniversary of Dawn’s departure from Earth, there are two reasons the spacecraft’s height changes. One is that the elevation of the surface itself changes, so if the probe flew in a perfect circle around ...

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