Don’t Bother Me, I’m Mapping Vesta

1 February 2013 by Troy McConaghy, posted in Astronomy, Spaceflight

Dawn trajectory

The Dawn trajectory design as of September 2009. (The dates have changed a bit since then, but the overall plan is the same.)


Back when I was a grad student at Purdue, one of my research projects was to improve space mission design software. One of my test cases was a mission to Vesta and Ceres. (Ceres is a dwarf planet and Vesta is an asteroid; both are in the asteroid belt.) The mission timeline went like this:

  1. Launch the spacecraft from Earth's surface on a rocket,
  2. travel to Mars, sometimes coasting (being affected mainly by the gravity of the Sun) and sometimes thrusting with a low-thrust engine (e.g. an ion engine),
  3. do a gravity-assist flyby of Mars,
  4. travel to Vesta,
  5. orbit around Vesta for a while, taking pictures and other measurements,
  6. travel to Ceres, and
  7. go into orbit around Ceres to take pictures and other measurements.

That test case came from the folks at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), which was funding my research. As it happens, a mission with that timeline actually launched! It's called Dawn. (I didn't have any hand in the actual mission. I'm just familiar with its timeline because it was a test case that JPL gave me.)

The Dawn spacecraft launched on September 27, 2007. Its low-thrust engine uses ion propulsion, making it the first such engine on a NASA exploratory mission. (There were previous technology demonstrator missions, such as Deep Space 1.) Dawn orbited Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012. It's currently en route to Ceres, where it's expected to arrive in February 2015.


Image of Vesta taken by Dawn on July 17, 2011


Dawn got thousands of images of Vesta. As you can see in the one above, Vesta has many craters, but there are other neat features too, such as dark spots, streaks, and gullies.

It would take the Dawn team a very, very long time to look through all the images and identify the craters. But if a bunch of volunteer mappers identify craters and aggregate their results, the job could be done much quicker. There's a citizen science project called "Vesta Mappers" where anyone can sign up to do just that!

It sounded like fun, so I signed up. I'll report my first impressions next week.

Suggested Further Reading and Viewing

JPL's official Dawn mission website.

Vesta Mappers is a CosmoQuest project. CosmoQuest got started with a similar project to map craters on the moon.

Image Sources

The image of the Dawn trajectory is courtesy NASA / JPL / Marc Rayman.

The photo of Vesta is courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

About this Blog

Outer Spacing is a blog about space exploration and development. It's written by Troy McConaghy (@TroyMc on Twitter).

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