Sat, Sep 29, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Space probe to study solar system's largest asteroids

AFP , WASHINGTON

The US space agency NASA on Thursday launched the space probe Dawn on its eight-year mission to unlock the secrets of the solar system by studying the two largest asteroids orbiting the sun.

The unmanned spacecraft successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and began its 3 billion kilometer journey to Ceres and Vesta in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn's long-haul to Vesta is expected to take four years, as NASA anticipates its arrival in orbit around Vesta in October 2011.

The probe will proceed to Ceres in May 2012 and then begin orbiting Ceres in February 2015 -- traveling a total distance of 5.1 billion kilometers.

The explorer, measuring 1.64m long and 1.27m wide, aims to provide a better understanding of the building blocks that formed the terrestrial planets and how the two "protoplanets" followed different evolutionary paths.

Dawn's mission is to learn about the first moments of the solar system's creation 4.6 billion years ago by gathering information about Ceres and Vesta, including what kinds of elements form such terrestrial planets, among them Earth, Mars and Mercury.

It also plans to explain why and how Vesta and Ceres followed a different evolutionary and formative path, particularly the role that water may have played in their development.

"By using the same set of instruments at two separate destinations, scientists can more accurately formulate comparisons and contrasts," NASA said.

"Dawn's science instrument suite will measure shape, surface topography and tectonic history, elemental and mineral composition as well as seek out water-bearing minerals," it said.

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