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Wed, Sep 12, 2007

One Small Step... Again... For NASA's Dawn

Oft-Delayed Probe Returns To The Launchpad

NASA tells ANN the Dawn spacecraft completed the 15-mile journey from Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, FL to Pad-17B of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 0510 EDT Tuesday morning. The launch period for Dawn -- NASA's eight-year, 3.2-billion-mile odyssey into the heart of the asteroid belt -- opens September 26.

"From here, the only way to go is up," said Dawn project manager Keyur Patel of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. "We are looking forward to putting some space between Dawn and Mother Earth and making some space history."

Well... up isn't the only way Dawn can go, although no doubt NASA engineers would rather not think of that. As ANN has reported, Dawn has suffered a series of hardships -- including cancellation of the entire program, later reconsidered -- on its way to the heavens.

Speaking of hardships... this is Dawn's second trip to the launchpad; the original launch attempt was scrubbed in July due to logistical difficulties, issues with the spacecraft's Delta II 7925-H launch booster, and the need to clear the pad for the more time-sensitive launch of NASA's Mars Phoenix spacecraft.

A worker's wrench even fell on Dawn's solar panel during a launchpad procedure to prepare the spacecraft for spin-balance testing, though it did not damage any cells.

Between now and launch day, NASA will conduct a systems integration test of the Delta II and Dawn, to insure both are working together. The test will simulate all events as they will occur on launch day, but without propellants aboard the vehicle.  

Dawn's mission is to characterize the conditions and processes of the solar system's earliest epoch 4.5 billion years ago by investigating in detail the massive asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, which reside between Mars and Jupiter in the asteroid belt.

Scientists theorize these were budding planets never given the opportunity to grow. However, Ceres and Vesta each followed a very different evolutionary path during the solar system's first few million years. By investigating two diverse asteroids during the spacecraft's eight-year flight, the Dawn mission aims to unlock some of the mysteries of planetary formation.

Once launched, Dawn will be the first spacecraft to orbit an object in the asteroid belt, and the first to orbit two bodies after leaving Earth.



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