Catching Up With Dawn, the Massive Spacecraft Exploring the Asteroid Belt

From Wired - August 11, 2017

Itd be hard to invent a more Star Wars-esque spacecraft than Dawn. Its 65 feet from tip to tip. Its exploring the asteroid belt. And its got an ion drive, for Petes sake.

But Dawn also has a serious job to do. Launched in 2007, its been investigating Ceres and Vesta, two mysterious protoplanets in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. These are smallish, truly ancient bodies, remnants of the early solar system (protoplanets being bodies that formed early on, some of which turned into actual planets like the one you are sitting on) with plenty of secrets to tellsecrets that Dawn has been handedly unraveling.

Why pick these objects, of all the objects in the solar system? Because figuring out what makes them tick will give scientists insights into how asteroids and protoplanets and actual planets form. And what they are finding is exhilarating. They have explored a massive impact on Vesta, which flung heaps of material into space. And on Ceres, they eyeballed a cryovolcano that spews brine instead of lava. Water, of course, is a prime ingredient for life.


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