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Monday, April 16, 2007

Dawn to Launch to Asteroids June 30 from Kennedy Spaceport

The Dawn spacecraft has arrived at Space Coast Florida from the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico in anticipation of a June 30 launch date aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta-II Heavy on its way to the solar system's two largest asteroids.

The anticipated June 30 launch will carry the spaceprobe Dawn on a 3.2-million mile expedition to the primary asteroid belt between the planets Mars and Jupiter. On-orbit the Dawn spacecraft will be powered by ion propulsion system to visit and orbit first the 329-milewide asteroid Vesta and then on to the 597-milewide asteroid dwarf-planet Ceres where some scientists believe that water ice may exist.

After Dawn gets a gravity boost in a fly-by of Mars in March 2009, it will reach Vesta in late 2011 and Ceres in early 2015. In both cases, the spacecraft will survey the situation before beginning a polar orbit and bearing down for closer inspection. The spacecraft will circle both poles, while the body rotates to reveal its entire surface for mapping instruments on-board Dawn.

Asteroids and comets have become of higher interest in recent years with five unmanned probes visiting Hally's Comet; Galileo visiting 951 Gaspra, 243 Ida and Dactyl; NEAR visting asteroid Eros; Deep Space-1 visiting asteroid Braille and comet Borrelly; Stardust visiting asteroid Annefrank and Comet Wild 2; Japan's Hayabusa visiting asteroid Itokawa.

In addition to Dawn, missions now underway to asteroids include: the ESA's Rosetta planning a visit asteroids Steins in 2008 and Lutetia in 2010 and on to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014; and, America's New Horizons visiting Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) in 2016-2020 after Pluto and its moon Charon in July 2015.

SpaceDev is planning the first commercial mission called NEAP to asteroid Nereus originally but with a mission launch between 2009-2011 a new target asteroid is probable. The legal ramifications of the SpaceDev mission are unique. NASA now has a human asteroid mission under active review for perhaps in the 2019-2022 timeline.

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