NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Might Visit a Third Asteroid After Vesta and Ceres

Monday, 25 April 2016 - 5:29PM
Space
Monday, 25 April 2016 - 5:29PM
NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Might Visit a Third Asteroid After Vesta and Ceres
NASA's Dawn spacecraft has been hopping around to different asteroids for the last half-decade, and we might be able to add another destination to the list. According to Dawn's principal investigator, Chris Russell, the space probe may visit another asteroid after it finishes the Ceres mission, which would mean three asteroid locations in total.

Dawn was first launched in September 2007 with the mission of studying two protoplanets in the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres. It entered Vesta's orbit in July 2011 and completed a 14-month mission before leaving for Ceres. It entered the second asteroid's orbit in March 2015, becoming the first spacecraft to visit two asteroids. This summer, the Ceres mission will officially end, but it can't self-destruct on the surface of Ceres as other space probes do, since there are strict regulations against contaminating other planetary bodies with Earth microbes.

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"The spacecraft has not been sterilised, so we aren't allowed to touch down on the surface of Ceres," Russell told New Scientist. Strict planetary protection rules forbid us sending Earth microbes to other worlds. "Instead, we want to go the other way, away from Ceres, to visit yet another target."
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As a result, Russell has applied for an extension in order to potentially visit another asteroid, but he won't tell us which one:

Opening quote
"As long as the mission extension has not been approved by NASA, I'm not going to tell you which asteroid we plan to visit," he said. "I hope a decision won't take months."
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Which one could he mean? It's likely one of the other objects in the asteroid belt, probably one of the four largest asteroids, which include Pallas and Hygiea in addition to Ceres and Vesta. The best guess may be Pallas, since it's the third-most-massive after Ceres and Vesta and is the only other known protoplanet in the asteroid belt, but we'll have to wait and see.
Science
NASA
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