Christopher T. Russell, professor of geophysics and space physics, has spent 15 years working on NASA's Dawn mission to send a spacecraft to the doughnut-shaped asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Russell, the principal investigator on the mission, was jubilant when the Dawn spacecraft launched successfully this morning (Sept. 27) from Cape Canaveral.
"We have our time machine up and flying," he said.
Dawn will conduct a detailed study of the structure and composition of two of the first bodies formed in our solar system: the "dwarf planet" Ceres and the massive asteroid Vesta. The first spacecraft to orbit two planetary bodies on the same mission, Dawn is expected to reveal the conditions under which these objects formed.
Dawn is scheduled to fly past Mars by April 2009; after more than four years of travel, the spacecraft will rendezvous with Vesta in 2011. Dawn will then orbit the asteroid for approximately nine months before it leaves in 2012 on a three-year journey to Ceres, to begin orbiting that planet in 2015.
"I think of Dawn as two journeys," says Russell, who proposed the mission to NASA. "One is a journey into space. This is analogous to what ancient explorers did . . . We're going to explore a region for the first time to find out what the conditions are today."
Dawn's other journey will transport scientists back in time, so to speak, to the early solar system.
"Ceres and Vesta have been altered much less than other bodies," Russell says. "The Earth is changing all the time. The Earth hides its history, but we believe that Ceres and Vesta, formed more than 4.6 billion years ago, have preserved their early record frozen into their ancient surfaces."
Adapted from stories by Stuart Wolpert. Images courtesy of NASA.