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Dawn departs Vesta, aims for Ceres

Dawn, NASA’s mission to explore the asteroid belt’s two most massive bodies, has left its first target, Vesta, in a belch of ionized xenon. On 5 September, the probe fired its ion thruster — which creates thrust by using electricity to ionize a store of xenon — and made its way away from the asteroid, ending a campaign to map the asteroid that began in July 2011.  While the science team has had no trouble in being seduced by Vesta’s charms — its layered interior points towards a formation process more like a planet’s than a simple asteroid’s — it did have trouble settling on a coordinate system that would pass muster with the International Astronomical Union. Now, Dawn moves towards an appointment in early 2015 with Ceres, the dwarf planet which is thought to harbour substantial amounts of subterranean ice. 


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