Saturday, February 18, 2012
A few days ago the Dawn team made a great amount of mission data public, a pretty big deal for a mission that until now has only provided teasers in the form of an image of the day. Since Dawn has been in orbit around Vesta for quite some time it's easy to forget that in the beginning there was a huge amount of irritation from those keeping a close eye on the approach (including from yours truly) as no pictures of the approach were released for...about a month or so, I believe. Our view of Vesta last summer went from a single dot to nothing, then nothing, then nothing, and then finally a fairly large image that really drove the point home that there was a lot of intermediary camera footage that the team had and we did not.
With any other mission this would be more or less an academic point, but because Dawn has a second target it is not: the next target after Vesta is the far more interesting (and larger) planet Ceres, and one hopes that we will be treated to a proper approach next time.
Here is how the approach should have been shown as we awaited with bated breath:
We won't have to start going after them for images until late 2014 when Dawn begins its approach to Ceres. The current distance to Ceres is now less than 129 million km (thanks to Vesta's orbit), or 0.8623 AU.