Mission Objectives

The top level question that the mission addresses is the role of size and water in determining the evolution of the planets. Ceres and Vesta are the right two bodies with which to address this question, as they are the most massive of the protoplanets, baby planets whose growth was interrupted by the formation of Jupiter. Ceres is very primitive and wet while Vesta is evolved and dry. The instrumentation to be flown is complete, flight-proven and similar to that used for Mercury, Mars, the Moon, Eros and comets. The science team consists of leading experts in the investigation of the rocky and icy planets using proven measurement and analysis techniques.

Vesta shape model overlaid with a false texture maps

Dawn has the potential for making many paradigm-shifting discoveries. Ceres may have active hydrological processes leading to seasonal polar caps of water frost, altering our understanding of the interior of these bodies. Vesta may have rocks more strongly magnetized than on Mars, altering our ideas of how and when dynamos arise with important lessons for Mars, Earth and Mercury. Ceres may have a thin, permanent atmosphere distinguishing it from the other minor planets.

The three principal scientific drivers for the mission are first that it captures the earliest moments in the origin of the solar system enabling us to understand the conditions under which these objects formed. Second, Dawn determines the nature of the building blocks from which the terrestrial planets formed, improving our understanding of this formation. Finally, it contrasts the formation and evolution of two small planets that followed very different evolutionary paths so that we understand what controls that evolution.

This mission is very timely. Its journey in time to understand the conditions at the formation of the solar system provides context for the understanding of the observation of extra solar-planetary systems. It provides data on the role of size and water in planetary evolution and forms a bridge between the exploration of the rocky inner solar system and the icy outer solar system. Finally, it completes the first order exploration of the inner solar system, addresses NASA's goal of understanding the origin and evolution of the solar system and complements ongoing investigations of Mercury, Earth and Mars.

- See published article on description of mission