Communications from the Dawn spacecraft via NASA’s Deep Space Network confirmed last week (11:26 p.m. PDT on September 4 or 6:26 UTC on September 5) that the craft has now 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. NASA said:
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. Over the past year, 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 last week (September 4-5, 2012) and headed for its next solar system target, Ceres. It is expected to reach Ceres in 2015.