“Standard orbit, Mr. Sulu.” Captain Kirk barks out the order with such confidence. He knows the USS Enterprise can slip in and out of planetary orbits with ease. But it’s only easy in the realm of science fiction. In the real world, such maneuvers have been impossible –until now.
Enter Dawn, NASA’s cutting edge mission to the asteroid belt.
Powered with a futuristic sounding new technology called “ion propulsion,” this spacecraft will perform space moves rivaling those of the Enterprise.
At this very moment, Dawn is slowly climbing away from the sun, beyond Mars, on its way to its first destination, asteroid Vesta. Dawn will enter “standard orbit” around this rocky world for a year, exploring its mysteries.
Then Dawn will do something unprecedented in real-world spaceflight: exit the orbit of one distant body, and fly to and orbit another. The second destination is asteroid Ceres.
“Dawn will be the first spacecraft ever built to orbit two target bodies after leaving Earth,” says Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “There’s not even a concept for doing such a mission with conventional propulsion systems. The spacecraft would have to carry so much fuel, it would be too heavy to launch.”
Instead, Dawn relies on ion propulsion, which doesn’t require a huge spacecraft. Rayman first heard the term years ago while watching – you guessed it — Star Trek.