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NASA's Dawn spacecraft set start year-long stay at giant asteroid

June 24, 2011 - Washington

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is on track to begin the first extended visit to a large asteroid.

The mission expects to go into orbit around Vesta on July 16 and begin gathering science data in early August.

Vesta resides in the main asteroid belt and is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth.

"The spacecraft is right on target. We look forward to exploring this unknown world during Dawn's one-year stay in Vesta's orbit," Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said.

After travelling nearly four years and 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion kilometres), Dawn is approximately 96,000 miles (155,000 kilometres) away from Vesta.

When Vesta captures Dawn into its orbit on July 16, there will be approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometres) between them. When orbit is achieved, they will be approximately 117 million miles (188 million kilometres) away from Earth.

"Navigation images from Dawn's framing camera have given us intriguing hints of Vesta, but we're looking forward to the heart of Vesta operations, when we begin officially collecting science data," Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, at UCLA, said.

"We can't wait for Dawn to peel back the layers of time and reveal the early history of our solar system," he stated.


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