Dawn closes in on Ceres, as a golden age of space missions draws to a close

An image of Ceres as taken by NASA's Dawn mission during its approach to the dwarf planet from a distance of 46,000 kilometres.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is on its final approach to orbit insertion at the dwarf planet Ceres.

The Dawn mission is an historic opportunity to find out more about Ceres the largest object in the asteroid belt, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. We know surprising little about it, apart from the fact that is composed of rock and ice and about 950 kilometres in diameter.

There is also the mystery about what is causing the bright spots on its face, which hopefully will become clearer when Dawn begins its orbit.

Cosmos will look at the possibilities of the mission in an analysis to be published on Monday.

We should make the most of the exciting mission, too. Future voyages of such audacity and scale are few and far between.

The past few decades have been something a golden age for space travel as we have visited planets, moons, asteroids, and comets of our solar system.

But these were all planned many years ago, when there was apparently more appetite for bold adventures and providing the funding for them.

Apart from the New Horizons probe, which will visit Pluto in July, there is little in the pipeline thanks to NASA cutbacks. The OSIRIS-Rex probe will launch next year, to travel to an asteroid and bring back a sample, but it won't return until 2023, while a planned mission to Jupiter's moon Europa won't be launched before 2025 and wouldn't reach Europa until the 2030s.

Even if we got started on a new mission tomorrow, it would be decades before we reached our objectives.

David W. Brown paints a gloomy picture of the future in his article on the dark future of American space exploration on Vox.

"There is nothing budgeted in the pipeline to take its place. Yesterday invested in today. But we are not investing in tomorrow."

This is the result of cutbacks to NASA's planetary exploration budget.

Meanwhile, let's make the most of Dawn's encounter with Ceres. Start by having a look at the video below that explains the ion propulsion engine that drives Dawn. It's one of those things that sounds like it shouldn't work – but does spectacularly well.

  1. http://blog.cosmosmagazine.com/blog/2015/2/26/another-mystery-bright-spot-on-ceres-emerges-as-dawn-draws-nearer
  2. http://www.vox.com/2015/2/23/8052365/nasa-budget-europa
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