Infographic: Dawn Probe Mission to the Birth of the Solar System

This past weekend, NASA's 2,800-pound Dawn probe arrived at Vesta, where it will remain for a year, taking photographs and conducting studies. This is the first time that NASA has sent a spacecraft to orbit a protoplanet or large asteroid in our solar system's asteroid belt. While there, Dawn will use "two ultra-high resolution 'framing cameras,' a visual and infrared spectrometer, as well as a gamma ray and neutron detector" to gather data, according to Mashable. "With these sophisticated instruments, NASA hopes to gain an understanding of the origins and earliest conditions of our solar system. The research will also help determine why Vesta is the brightest asteroid in the solar system."

"Dawn's study of the asteroid Vesta marks a major scientific accomplishment and also points the way to the future destinations where people will travel in the coming years," NASA chief Charles Bolden said in a statement. "President Obama has directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and Dawn is gathering crucial data that will inform that mission."
This infographic from lays out the mission and provides a brief introduction to Vesta and Ceres, the two protoplanets that Dawn will be studying.

Infographics are always a bit of a hodgepodge of statistics culled from a variety of sources. Here, we sort through the clutter and pull out some of our favorite facts and figures:

  • NASA's Dawn probe carries with it three main scientific instruments: a framing camera is used to photograph the protoplanets; a spectrometer used to determine the chemical composition of the surfaces of said planets; and a combined gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) used to determine the abundance of major rock-forming elements.
  • Dawn's targets represent two different types of protoplanet. Ceres is considered primitive and 'wet,' covered with a material like clay. Vesta is more evolved, rocky and 'dry.'
  • Previously, probes have either flown past or orbited their targets. Dawn is the first to orbit one extraterrestrial body, break out of orbit, then fly to and orbit a second body.
  • Ceres and Vesta are much larger than any other asteroids previously visited by spacecraft, and have a more substantial gravitational pull.
  • Ceres, discovered in 1801, has a diameter of 590 miles and a surface gravity that is just 0.028 that of Earth.
  • Vesta, discovered six years later in 1807, has a diameter of just 330 miles and a surface gravity that is only 0.022 that of Earth.

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