Tag: Spacecraft

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Snaps Image From 3.8 Billion Miles Away From Earth

At first glance it might not look like much – but, with a fuzzy purple and green photo, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has made history.

On December 5, New Horizons captured an image said to be the farthest from Earth ever taken, at a staggering 3.79 billion miles away.

And, just hours later, it beat its own record.

According to NASA, the remarkable false-color images sent back by New Horizons are also the closest-ever images captured of objects in the Kuiper Belt.

When New Horizon’s snapped a photo with its telescopic camera for a routine calibration frame of the Wishing Well star cluster, it was farther into space than even NASA’s Voyager 1 had been when it captured its famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image of Earth, the space agency says.

At the time, New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers) from Earth.


Voyager, by comparison, was 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometers) from Earth when it captured its famous photo in 1990.

According to NASA, New Horizons is now the fifth spacecraft to fly beyond the outer planets of our solar system.

Hours after its first record-breaking image on Dec 5, it captured another. The latter shows a look at Kuiper Belt objects HZ84 and 2012 HE85.

The images were captured using the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). And, NASA says they’re the closest images yet of objects in this region.

New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts – first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”

New Horizons is now on its way to a KBO named 2014 MU69, with which it’s expected to make a close encounter on Jan 1, 2019.

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Everything You Need To Know About Today’s Falcon Heavy Launch

The time has finally come for SpaceX to launch its Falcon Heavy rocket. A launch license has been issued for the giant vehicle to take flight this Tuesday.

It’s a mission that many have been waiting for since 2011 when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk first announced plans to develop the vehicle.

Now, after seven years and numerous delays, the launch of the rocket is imminent — and it could be a game-changer for SpaceX.

Here are all the details you need to know about this launch and why it’s such a big deal for both SpaceX and the industry.




What is the Falcon Heavy?

The essence of the rocket is right there in its name: it’s the heavy-lift version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle consists of three Falcon 9 cores strapped together, giving the rocket an awesome amount of power.

And since each Falcon 9 has nine main rocket engines, there are 27 total engines that will all be used to send this vehicle to space. No other working rocket has ever used so many.

All of this hardware can supposedly create more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

That makes the Falcon Heavy capable of putting around 140,000 pounds of cargo into lower Earth orbit, earning the title of the most powerful rocket in the world.

Where is it launching from?

The Falcon Heavy is taking off from a historic launch site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, called LC-39A.

The site was used to launch the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon as well as numerous Space Shuttle missions — including the final Shuttle launch.

In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA to use the pad at 39A for the company’s flights, and it has since modified the site to accommodate launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

 

What is the Falcon Heavy going to do?

For the first Falcon Heavy flight, SpaceX is going to try to launch it to orbit without blowing up. This is a demonstration mission, meant to see if the Falcon Heavy can simply send a payload to orbit.

That’s why the rocket’s cargo is pretty silly: it’s Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster, made even sillier with the possible inclusion of a dummy in the passenger seat, dressed in a brand-new SpaceX suit, naturally.

The Falcon Heavy is supposed to put the car (as well as the passenger, presumably) into an orbit around the Sun known as a Hohmann transfer orbit.

This path will take the car as far out from the Sun as the distance of Mars’ orbit. However, the car won’t be going anywhere near Mars, so there’s no risk of the car contaminating the planet with Earth microbes.

What happens if it’s successful?

Then the Falcon Heavy has some more flights scheduled. The vehicle is booked to a put up a large communications satellite for operator Arabsat of Saudi Arabia sometime in early 2018.

And the Falcon Heavy is also slated to launch a test payload for the US Air Force no earlier than June.

That launch will allow the Air Force to judge whether or not the Falcon Heavy is ready to fly national security payloads, which could become a big market for the vehicle.

The flight will also contain a cluster of secondary satellites, too, including a special test spacecraft from the Planetary Society called LightSail.

The probe is designed to deploy a large, thin sail that uses radiation from the Sun to propel through space.

When is the launch happening?

The launch is currently scheduled to take off on Tuesday, February 6th, sometime during a launch window that spans from 1:30PM to 4PM ET.

However, this is the first flight of the Falcon Heavy — ever — so technological glitches could arise that push the launch back a couple of days.

Weather could also cause a delay, but there’s an 80 percent chance that weather will be favorable, according to Patrick Military Air Force Base at the Cape.

How can I watch the launch?

SpaceX will be live-streaming the mission on YouTube, which will be embedded in this post. Coverage should begin shortly before liftoff, so check back then to watch one of the most anticipated rocket launches in the last decade.

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Rocket Lab Has Reached The Orbit For The First Time

This weekend, US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab successfully launched its second Electron rocket for a crucial flight test — and reached orbit for the first time.

The Electron took off from the company’s New Zealand launch facility at 2:43PM local time on Sunday (or 8:43PM ET on Saturday), and about eight and a half minutes later, the rocket deployed three small commercial satellites.

It marks the first time the Electron has completed a full mission, and that may mean Rocket Lab is ready to start commercial flights of the vehicle.




Reaching orbit on a second test flight is significant on its own, but successfully deploying customer payloads so early in a new rocket program is almost unprecedented,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said in a statement.

Rocket Lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that.

Rocket Lab’s big ambition is to be a dedicated launcher of small satellites. That’s why the company’s Electron rocket isn’t very big itself.

It stands at just over 55 feet tall, a slight stature compared to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is a lofty 180 feet tall. And the Electron’s capacity is limited, only capable of getting between 330 and 500 pounds to lower Earth orbit.

For comparison, the Falcon 9 can get around 50,000 pounds to a similar orbit.

But demand for this type of small rocket has been high. Operators of tiny satellites don’t have many options to get to space, and typically have to hitch rides on launches of much bigger probes.

That’s not always ideal, since it means waiting for someone else launch and possibly going to a less-than-desirable orbit.

But with a launcher like the Electron, small satellite operators can potentially pay for an entire rocket ride for their hardware, and Rocket Lab says individual flights may start as low as $4.9 million.

The company says it already has a full manifest of customers waiting for trips.

Before customers can start flying, Rocket Lab needed to show that the Electron could do its job, and getting to orbit was a key goal of this test.

During the first flight test of the vehicle, appropriately called “It’s a Test,” the Electron made it to space but failed to make it to orbit.

Some communications equipment on the ground lost contact with the rocket during flight, causing the vehicle to abort its mission. Rocket Lab said that if the mishap hadn’t occurred, the Electron would have made it to orbit.

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NASA To Send Probe To Titan Or A Comet By 2025

NASA has picked two concepts for a solar system mission planned to launch in the mid-2020s — a comet sample return mission and a drone-like rotor-craft that would explore potential landing sites on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Which of these two mission will finally make it will be known only in 2019.

Both missions will receive funding through the end of 2018 to further develop and mature their concepts.

NASA plans to select one of these investigations in the spring of 2019 to continue on to subsequent mission phases,” the US space agency said on Wednesday.

These are tantalising investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.




The Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) mission seeks to return a sample from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a comet that was successfully explored by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, to determine its origin and history.

The other selected mission, Dragonfly, is a drone-like rotorcraft that would explore the prebiotic chemistry and habitability of dozens of sites on Saturn’s moon Titan, an ocean world in our solar system.

NASA announced the concepts following an extensive and competitive peer review process.

The concepts were chosen from 12 proposals submitted in April under a New Frontiers programme announcement of opportunity.

The selected mission will be the fourth in NASA’s New Frontiers portfolio, a series of principal investigator-led planetary science investigations that fall under a development cost cap of approximately $850 million, NASA said.

Its predecessors are the New Horizons mission to Pluto and a Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and OSIRIS-REx, which will rendezvous with and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu.

NASA also announced the selection of two mission concepts that will receive technology development funds to prepare them for future mission competitions.

The concepts selected for technology development are – Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability (ELSAH) and Venus In situ Composition Investigations (VICI)

The ELSAH mission concept will receive funds to develop cost-effective techniques that limit spacecraft contamination and thereby enable life detection measurements on cost-capped missions.

The VICI mission concept will further develop the Venus Element and Mineralogy Camera to operate under the harsh conditions on Venus.

The instrument uses lasers on a lander to measure the mineralogy and elemental composition of rocks on the surface of Venus.

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How SpaceX’s 2018 Moon Flight Will Work

Nearly 45 years after NASA astronauts last embarked on a lunar mission, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has announced his company’s plans to send two private citizens on a flight around the moon in 2018.

The weeklong trip will look a lot like NASA’s historic Apollo 8 mission, the first and only purely circumlunar, crewed mission in history.

Sut SpaceX’s mission will fly with two crewmembers instead of three, and will use a fresh new spacecraft and launch vehicle.




SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket will launch the crewed Dragon 2 spacecraft to the moon. The rocket and crew capsule have not flown on any missions yet.

But the Falcon Heavy is slated to blast off for its first test launch this summer, and the Dragon 2 will make its first test flight in November.

The Falcon Heavy is a variation of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which was made to carry the uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to and from the International Space Station.

With two extra boosters strapped to its sides, the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket to blast off since NASA’s Saturn rockets, which were retired in the early 1970s.

Musk said the crewed Dragon spacecraft “would skim the surface of the moon” before heading “further out into deep space.” The spacecraft won’t literally touch the lunar surface, though.

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Voyager 1 Just Fired Up its Backup Thrusters For The 1st Time In 37 Years

NASA’s far-flung Voyager 1 spacecraft has taken its backup thrusters out of mothballs.

Voyager 1 hadn’t used its four “trajectory correction maneuver” (TCM) thrusters since November 1980, during the spacecraft’s last planetary flyby — an epic encounter with Saturn.

But mission team members fired them up again Tuesday (Nov. 28), to see whether the TCM thrusters were still ready for primetime.

The little engines passed the test with flying colors, NASA officials said.

The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test,” Todd Barber, a propulsion engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all.




As Barber’s words suggest, the mission team didn’t do this out of idle curiosity.

Voyager 1 which in August 2012 became the first human-made object ever to enter interstellar space has long been using its standard attitude-control thrusters to orient itself into the proper position to communicate with Earth.

But the performance of these thrusters has been flagging for at least three years, so mission team members wanted to find an alternative option.

A successful test was far from guaranteed. Not only was the long layoff a potential issue, but the TCM thrusters were designed to burn continuously for relatively long stretches.

They had never been fired in the very short bursts employed for attitude control, NASA officials said.

The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters,” Chris Jones, chief engineer at JPL, said in the same statement.

The plan is now to press the TCM engines into service in the attitude-control role, beginning in January. This should make a big difference for the mission, team members said.

But the four TCM thrusters will likely be retired again at some point in the future.

Each one requires a heater to operate, which in turn uses power.

When Voyager 1’s power supply gets too low, the probe’s handlers will switch back to the attitude-control thrusters, NASA officials said.

Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, launched a few weeks apart in 1977 to conduct an unprecedented “grand tour” of the solar system’s giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The spacecraft accomplished this goal, and then kept on flying. Voyager 2 is expected to join its sibling in interstellar space in the next few years, NASA officials said.

The mission team will probably do a similar TCM test on Voyager 2 at some point, but that spacecraft’s attitude-control thrusters are in better shape than those of Voyager 1, NASA officials said.

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Back to Saturn? Five Missions Proposed To Follow Cassini

For 13 years, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft sent back captivating observations of Saturn, and its rings and moons, solving some mysteries but raising plenty of new questions.

With the spacecraft’s demise on Friday, the stream of data from Saturn has dried up.

Until we go back, that’s a very distant world now,” Linda Spilker, the project scientist for Cassini, said during a news conference on Friday.

The details of the rings, and those small moons snuggled in so close — those are all gone until we go back.

NASA currently has no plans to return to Saturn, but that could change. In the latest round in a scientific competition called New Frontiers, NASA specified categories of missions it would consider.

Those include a probe to study Saturn’s atmosphere or a mission to go to Titan or Enceladus, two moons known to have oceans.

The New Frontiers program solicits ideas for missions from teams of scientists and engineers. These projects can be ambitious, costing up to about $1 billion.

Earlier proposals included Juno, now orbiting Jupiter, and Osiris-Rex, currently en route to the asteroid Bennu.

NASA may announce finalists by the end of the year. A winning mission is to be selected by summer 2019 for launch around 2025.

At least five submitted proposals take aim at Saturn, Titan or Enceladus.




Titan

As a spacecraft, Dragonfly would be an oddity: It would have propellers, like a helicopter — “a nuclear quadcopter to look for life on Saturn’s moon, Titan,” Peter Bedini, a program manager at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a recent talk.

Proponents of this concept say a quadcopter would be an ideal way to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The air is thick there, thicker than on Earth.

The landscape is varied, interspersed with obstacles — rivers, lakes and seas of liquid methane — that could prove inaccessible for a rover.

The booming popularity of flying drones in recent years makes the technology potentially feasible for interplanetary exploration, too.

In the past, scientists have suggested exploring the moon with balloons and airplanes. But Titan’s geology — sand dunes, eroded gullies — is more interesting than what is in the air.

Dragonfly would fly from place to place, but would spend most of its time performing experiments on the ground.

A second Titan proposal, Oceanus, is led by Christophe Sotin, the chief scientist for solar system exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which was Cassini’s home base.

The Oceanus spacecraft would study the moon from orbit, potentially identifying habitable regions for life.

Enceladus

Jonathan I. Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University, was a member of the science team managing the Huygens probe, which traveled to Saturn with Cassini and landed on Titan.

He would be the principal investigator on a proposed mission to revisit Enceladus, a small moon just 313 miles wide.

The discovery of geysers shooting from its south pole was a stunning surprise, and now the moon is considered a prime place for look for life.

The proposed spacecraft, called Enceladus Life Finder, would fly through the plumes like Cassini did but with more sophisticated instruments capable of identifying a wide variety of molecules including amino acids, which would hint at signs of life.

Saturn

The Saturn Probe Interior and Atmosphere Explorer would essentially do what Cassini did on Friday: descend into the planet’s atmosphere. But it would go much deeper.

The main part of the mission would end quickly — in about 90 minutes, as the probe parachuted into the atmosphere. It would take measurements of certain elements like helium that are hard to measure.

The ratio of helium to hydrogen is a crucial measure indicating how far from the sun a planet formed in the early days of the solar system.

Cassini attempted to measure that in its final plunge, but that data, from high in the atmosphere, will not be conclusive.

NASA’s Galileo spacecraft dropped an atmospheric probe into Jupiter in 1995, and this proposal is the “same exact idea as the Galileo probe,” said Amy Simon, an expert on planetary atmospheres at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

She would be the principal investigator for the mission.

To understand how the solar system formed, it’s crucial to understand its biggest fixtures. Saturn, of course, is the second largest planet, after Jupiter.

The two of them together tell you a lot of what happened in the early solar system,” Dr. Simon said. “It will answer those few fundamental questions that we could not do with Cassini.

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Mystery on Enceladus: What Drives Saturn Moon’s Icy Plumes?

The famous geysers seen erupting from the surface of Saturn’s striped moon Enceladus are a striking visual feature, but a scientific mystery. A new model may finally explain what sustains these eruptions.

First spotted by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2005, the geysers erupt along Enceladus’ “tiger stripes,” or fissures, in the icy surface around the moon’s south pole.

There are multiple outstanding questions about the geysers, such as how they can continue to erupt over longer periods of time, and why they don’t freeze over.

The new model shows how tidal stress from Saturn could help solve the puzzle.




On Earth, [geyser] eruptions don’t tend to continue for long,” said lead author Edwin Kite, a geophysical scientist at the University of Chicago, in a statement.

When you see eruptions that continue for a long time, they’ll be localized into a few pipelike eruptions with wide spacing between them.

The liquid that spews skyward from the geysers on Enceladus likely comes from a subsurface ocean.

Tidal forces the same kind responsible for the tides on Earth exerted on Enceladus by Saturn, could cause the water in its subsurface ocean to spew upward, creating the geysers.

But observations show that the eruptions reach their peak five hours later than would be expected if they were caused by a simple tidal force.

Scientists have previously proposed that the delay is due to of the fact that Enceladus’ outer, icy shell is relatively soft, but the new model doesn’t require that to be true.

The new model suggests that deep vertical “slots” may be located between the icy surface of Enceladus and the water below.

If the slots were wide, the eruptions would happen very soon after the tidal force goes into effect, the researchers say.

If the slots were narrow, the tidal forcing would take longer.

The observed delay of 5 hours comes from a size of slot that is somewhere in between, the scientists said.

The tidal forces laid out in the new model could also heat the water and the ice shell via turbulence, according to the statement.

That could explain why “the fissure system doesn’t clog up with its own frost,” Kite said.

And why “the energy removed from the water table by evaporative cooling doesn’t just ice things over.

That conclusion could be tested by an analysis of observations from Cassini’s recent flybys of Enceladus. Data from Cassini could show if the south polar ice has been heated or if it’s cold.

If temperatures between the cracks are found to be warm, this would imply that there is some additional source of heat.

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Germs May Be Valuable Passengers on Mission To Mars

Astronauts on space missions to Mars may need more germs on the ship with them to stay in good health, a new study suggests.

As scientists prepare for a mission to Mars in the coming decades, the health and safety of astronauts is a top priority.

In this new research, scientists honed in on the microorganisms that would be living in close quarters with crews aboard spacecraft.

Researchers from Germany, the United Kingdom and Austria, led by the German Aerospace Center, enlisted a crew of six male “Marsonauts.” They lived inside a mock spacecraft in Moscow from June 2010 to November 2011.

During the mock Mars mission, the researchers monitored how the composition of bacteria changed over time.

What they found was that the diversity of germs dropped dramatically during the equivalent of a space flight to Mars.




Until now, little was known about the influence of long-term confinement on the microorganisms that live inside habitats that may one day be used to travel to other planets, and whether the structure of the microbiota changes with time,” said study author Petra Schwendner, from the University of Edinburgh.

Ours is the first comprehensive long-time study that investigates the microbial load, diversity and dynamics in a closed habitat – a mock-up spacecraft – for 520 days, the full duration of a simulated flight to Mars,” she said.

During the mock mission, the crew never left the closed habitat. They were also subjected to a regimented lifestyle that future Mars astronauts will face.

This involved a strict diet and schedule, which included cleaning the habitat and conducting scientific experiments.

The crew also collected 360 microbial samples from the air and various surfaces at 18 intervals.

The study showed communal areas, sleep areas, the gym, and the bathroom had the greatest volume and diversity of bacteria while the medical space had the least.

The researchers noted, however, that microbial diversity aboard the “spacecraft” declined dramatically during the mission.

The findings were published Oct. 3 in the journal Microbiome.

In addition to potential health risks for the crew, some of these microorganisms could have a negative impact on spacecraft, as they grow on and might damage spacecraft material,” Schwendner said in a journal news release.

To ensure the systems’ stability, countermeasures may be required to avoid development of highly resistant, adapted microorganisms, and a complete loss of microbial [germ} diversity,” she said.

The crew was the main source of human-associated bacteria within the habitat, but the prolonged confinement seemed to have the most significant effect on the bacterial community, the researchers found.

The study authors suggested their findings provide insight on habitat maintenance and could help scientists develop strategies to ensure a healthy environment for astronauts during future deep space missions.

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Mysterious Bright Spots On Ceres Are Probably Salt

The verdict is in — mostly. The bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres are probably made of salt, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has found.

Mixed with the salt are bits of rock and frozen water. When sunlight hits the blend, the ice sublimates into a misty haze above two of Ceres’s craters, researchers report in the 10 December issue of Nature.

But mission scientists are not sure how the salt, ice and haze are interlinked.

The whole picture we do not have yet,” says Andreas Nathues, a planetary scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Goettingen, Germany, and the paper’s lead author.




Dawn has also found ammonia-rich clays on Ceres, a second Nature paper reports. Ammonia is more common in the frigid outer Solar System than in the asteroid belt where Ceres reigns.

The discovery suggests that Ceres may have collected bits of outer Solar System material — or even that it was born near Neptune before migrating inward.

Both papers are the first major published results from Dawn.

At 950 kilometres across, Ceres is not only the largest asteroid in the Solar System, but also a protoplanet whose origin and evolution may help researchers to better understand how other planets formed.

Scientists previously calculated that roughly one-quarter of Ceres is water, which may lurk as an icy shell beneath the dwarf planet’s dark surface.

The bright spots are the first direct glimpse of that underground ice. Dawn has catalogued more than 130 such spots, most of them within impact craters.

The brightest lies in the 90.5-kilometre-wide Occator Crater, and the second-brightest is in the 10-kilometre-wide Oxo Crater. (Features on Ceres are named after agricultural deities.)

Dawn spotted haze only in Occator and Oxo, Nathues says. The spacecraft’s camera captured it glimmering beneath the rims of the craters in the morning sun, then vanishing by afternoon.

The haze probably forms when sunlight warms the surface, causing ice to sublimate and carry dust and ice particles upward. When the surface cools, the sublimation ceases and the haze disappears.

In 2014, researchers analysing measurements made by the Herschel Space Observatory reported water vapour in the atmosphere of Ceres near Occator.

Some kind of geological process seems to continually feed ice to the surface, replenishing what is lost, Nathues says.

Occator and Oxo are both relatively young craters, and the other bright spots on Ceres might represent older impacts where outgassing has stopped.

Dawn will never be able to spot the haze again. The spacecraft could only photograph it from an oblique angle as it first approached Ceres.

Nathues’ team also looked at spectra of light reflecting off the bright spots. Those measurements suggest that the spots contain salt, which is most likely to be a type of magnesium sulfate.

Many questions remain. De Sanctis and her colleagues are analysing new spectral data on the bright spots, which may support or rule out the presence of salts. “It’s really enticing,” she says.

Dawn is currently spiralling down to its final mapping orbit, which it will reach on or before 18 December.

From there it will study Ceres from a distance of about 385 kilometres until the mission runs out of money to operate the spacecraft or it can no longer point itself in the right direction.

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