Communications from the Dawn spacecraft via NASA’s Deep Space Network confirmed in 2012 (11:26 p.m. PDT on September 4 or 6:26 UTC on September 5) that the craft escaped the gentle grip of gravity in the region around the asteroid Vesta. Dawn had been orbiting Vesta for more than a year. The spacecraft is now moving toward its next target in our solar system, an object once considered an asteroid but now called a dwarf planet: Ceres. In 2012, NASA reported:
Dawn spiraled away from Vesta as gently as it arrived. It is expected to pull into its next port of call, Ceres, in early 2015.
The image below is one of Dawn’s farewell shots of Vesta, showing the asteroid’s north pole.
Dawn was launched from Earth on September 27, 2007. It reached Vesta and began orbiting it on July 15, 2011. At the end of its mission, NASA said:
Dawn has comprehensively mapped this previously uncharted world, revealing an exotic and diverse planetary building block. The findings are helping scientists unlock some of the secrets of how the solar system, including our own Earth, was formed.
Check out this video. It’s a farewell portrait of Vesta, from Dawn.
Bottom line: The Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting the asteroid Vesta for more than a year, left the gentle grip of the asteroid’s gravity on September 4-5, 2012, to head for its next solar system target, the dwarf planet Ceres. It is expected to reach Ceres in 2015.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.