Although the space shuttle program is ending — more on that in a later post — U.S. space exploration efforts continue unabated through use of unmanned probes. Tomorrow one such probe, called Dawn, will begin to orbit Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Once it settles into orbit, Dawn’s mission will be to photograph the asteroid, deploy instruments that can detect the minerals and elements found on the asteroid, and gather data that will allow scientists to assess the geological forces that shaped the asteroid. After orbiting Vesta for a year, Dawn will move on to Ceres, an even larger asteroid.
For science fiction fans like me, the mineral composition of the asteroid will be of the most interest. Lots of good science fiction deals with asteroid miners and mining colonies, and potential exploitation of minerals is one of the reasons why space exploration may end up being of great interest to private concerns, too. If we learn that Vesta possesses a treasure trove of minerals, and Dawn proves that navigating among the asteroids can be safely accomplished, we may move one step closer to significant commercial interest in space — and in this era of tight governmental budgets, moving forward in space exploration and technology probably will require significant investment by private entities.