x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

2.8 billion km later

2.8 billion lonely kilometres from home, a space ship is investigating an ancient asteroid. Who knows what it will find?

With its solar arrays extended on both sides, the small yellow spacecraft Dawn spent four years speeding towards the massive asteroid Vesta. Since 2007, Dawn has travelled 2.8 billion kilometres across space, finally penetrating the orbit of the asteroid on Monday.

Since then, the spacecraft has been taking photos of Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists at Nasa believe Vesta to be the source of many of the meteorites that have fallen to Earth.

As you read these words, Dawn is busily beginning its one-year mission, scanning Vesta's surface and searching for possible moons. Nasa scientists hope this mission will bring new discoveries, as Vesta is "arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system", according to Christopher Russell, Dawn's principal investigator from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Nothing is certain, of course. This year-long mission could send home nothing of significance. But on the other hand, it could be the source of ... well, who knows what? Space exploration is always a gamble - but at least we are opening the door to endless possibilities.

Perhaps the best thing about this mission is that even after the year is up, the spacecraft will continue on to study another asteroid, Ceres.