The long wait finally came to an end for scientists at the Institute of Planetary Research of the German Aviation and Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin-Adlershof and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau: A Delta II rocket carrying the Dawn space probe took off from Cape Canaveral today at 13.34 CET (07.34 local time).
The mission is to explore the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. On board Dawn are two camera systems, both developed and constructed by DLR and the Max Planck Institute, which will operate during the mission phase from 2011 to 2015. After leaving Earth's gravitational field, Dawn will be the first mission to orbit two different bodies in our Solar System.
Trip to the origins of the Solar System
Dawn is a space probe from the NASA Discovery Program that will give science the opportunity to solve the riddle of our solar system at relatively low cost and employing innovative missions. As the ninth of 10 discovery missions, Dawn is the first NASA mission where a non-American camera will take photos of the targets.
The so-called "launch window" for Dawn opened on Wednesday, but filling of the fuel tank on the three-stage launch vehicle was postponed for safety reasons when bad weather hit the coast of Florida. It was only completed on Monday evening. If the weather had thwarted NASA's plans on Thursday as well, there would have been further favourable launch opportunities of about 30 to 45 minutes early each morning (local time) until 15th October.
One hour after the launch, Dawn was separated from its cradle on the Star 48 top stage; the ion thrusters on the space probe fired for the first time a few minutes later. On its initial 2.8 million-kilometre voyage, the probe will travel to the asteroid Vesta, the third-largest minor planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. After nine months in Vesta orbit, Dawn will continue on to Ceres, an asteroid some 1000 kilometres in diameter, where it will go into orbit.
By exploring these two still very primitive bodies, scientists hope to gain knowledge about the origins of the 4.6 hundred million year-old Solar System.
The total cost of Dawn, including launch and operating expenses, is about 320 million euros, of which Germany will contribute three percent. The Dawn camera was funded by the resources of the Max Planck organisation and money from the federal government's national aerospace programme through the DLR Aerospace Agency, as well as resources from DLR's basic budget for research and development.