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NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Orbits Vesta

The first Protoplanet has been orbited as of July 16th, 2011.  Amid much fanfare at NASA and little elsewhere, one of the final projects of the space program prior to the massive budget cuts it saw in 2010 finally made its way around a body that was not quite an asteroid and yet not quite a planet.  The Vesta orbit marks a milestone in NASA’s rich history but sadly may prove to be one of the final triumphs of the space program in the near future if interest and funding to not return to space exploration.

After a journey of almost 117 million miles, the Dawn spacecraft made its journey to a distant asteroid belt where it came across an incredible opportunity.  And while the space probe’s journey is only now beginning, excited representatives of the project are already hailing that this achievement is far beyond the wildest dreams of NASA scientists.  The Dawn space probe has yet to finish its journey, but it has sent back some incredible information on Vesta.

The Dawn space probe is propelled by a controversial and incredibly innovative ion propulsion system similar to that which drove the “TIE fighters” in Star Wars.  The solar panels convert energy into ions which propel the spacecraft forward by streaming out a steady flow of ions behind it.  But unlike the Empire’s Tie Fighters, the Dawn space probe is capturing images of distant bodies in space, relying on the microscopic bursts of energy to easily allow it to travel through the void of space.

And despite conservative projections that the Dawn space probe may not last until 2011 since its launch four years ago, NASA is easily quelling any apprehension about the craft – as it seems more or less self sufficient as it travels through space.  And it still has a vast itinerary ahead of it.  Thus far it has managed to clock a staggering 1.73 billion miles (make it five trillion more and it will be the first craft to travel a light year.)  And scientists were more than careful not to let Dawn get too close to the distant Dawn planetoid, keeping it at a safe distance of 9,900 miles so it did not get caught in the planetoid’s gravity well.

And if this seems like another story of a spacecraft orbiting another inconsequential body, think again.  Approximately five percent of all asteroids come from Vesta, meaning we are for the first time exploring a distant proto-planet that has been visiting Earth for centuries.

So what’s in store for Dawn in the near future?  NASA scientists are still sifting through the material sent back from its Vesta visit.  And some are eagerly awaiting the release of the last bits of data in the hopes that there could be artificial structures on it.  While Vesta is not capable of sustaining life as we know it according to current estimates, there’s always the possibility of life as we don’t know it – or at least life as we do not yet understand it.