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The NASA spacecraft Dawn became the first man made object to go into orbit around a dwarf planet this month. Ceres holds that distinction, along with Pluto, but Ceres is a lot closer and easier to get to. This wasn’t Dawn’s first visit to a celestial body; it stopped off at the giant asteroid Vesta on it’s way to Ceres, spending from 2011 to 2012 there and sending back a ton of data. The other thing I find exciting about this mission is that Dawn is flying using an Ion Engine, allowing it to do really long range sustained controlled flight. The Ion Engine technology is going to help open up the outer Solar System to the kinds of exploration you just can’t do when your flight is based on gravity assist orbital changes alone.

Dawn Mission: Multimedia >Ceres Awaits Dawn.  

As anyone who has stood at the bottom of the Earth’s gravity well and pointed their camera up can tell you, the kind of pictures an Astronaut can take from orbit will far surpass that. In this video, Astronaut Don Pettit gives you an idea of what is involved, and what you might be able to achieve. Knowing this, all you have to do now is achieve orbit, making sure to bring your camera with you.

Using the Asteroid Zoo web site, you can contribute to the hunt for asteroids by simply applying your Mark II Eyeball and its Wetware computing processing which evolved over millions of years to spot patterns such as the visual differences caused by things that move. It was refined to help us spot things trying to eat us, things falling on us, and things we could eat, but it also makes us the optimal processing instrument for spotting planets, comets, meteors, and asteroids from sky survey photographic sequences. What makes spotting such objects useful and worth your time? The answer depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. The pessimist will be looking for things trying to fall on us, alerting NASA, the ESA, and others so we can destroy or deflect them before they can impact and damage our world. The optimist will be looking for low flying rocks that we can capture and mine for resources such as metals and volatiles (fuel and food). Whatever your reason, it contributes to humanities knowledge and the protection of the world, so it is a good thing. Thanks to the folks at Planetary Resources for making it possible, and thank you if you contributed to the programs Kickstarter funding.

Just a reminder the second annual The Future Is Here Festival at the Smithsonian takes place this weekend (Friday through Sunday). Some of the speakers include Adam Steltzner, George Takei, Kim Stanley Robinson, David Brin, and The Mythbusters. At the higher ticket levels the event also includes priority seating on Saturday night for the national premiere of X-Men: Days of Future Past at the National Museum of American History, and Patrick Stewart will be taking questions from the audience afterwards.

If Astronomy and Space excite you, there is some good news. It seems Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has teamed up with Ann Druyan and Seth MacFarlane to create a new show, Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, very much in the tradition of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos. Ann Druyan is the widow of Carl Sagan and one of the co-producers of the original Cosmos series, while animator Seth MacFarlane helped pull in the network funding. The two of them will share the Executive Producer duties for the new show, which will be running on Fox and National Geographic on the same night. Word of this project was first announced back in 2012, but now we are getting close: the first episode airs on March 9th.