One small step as Dawn heads for dwarf planet

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After spending a year gazing at a giant asteroid, Nasa’s Dawn spacecraft has begun a cruise toward an even bigger target – a voyage that will take nearly three years.

Ground controllers received a signal from Dawn that it successfully spiralled away from the asteroid Vesta and was headed toward the dwarf planet Ceres.

The departure was considered ordinary compared with other recent missions, such as Curiosity’s white-knuckle “seven minutes of terror” dive into Mars’s atmosphere.

Firing its ion propulsion thrusters, Dawn gently freed itself from Vesta’s gravitational hold on Tuesday night.

Since its antenna was pointed away from Earth during the manoeuvre, Nasa did not get confirmation until the next day.

Launched in 2007, Dawn is designed to learn about the solar system’s evolution.