While most of the world’s attention has been occupied with other matters, a spaceship with an advanced ion propulsion system has been quietly approaching Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt. Launched in 2007, the spacecraft named Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Vesta in July of this year. After orbiting Vesta for a year, Dawn will move on to the dwarf planet Ceres in order to investigate that body as well. If it works, it will be the first time a space probe has ever entered orbit around one world, and then left it to visit another. All previous multi-body space missions have been quick flybys.
Yesterday Dawn began to navigate by tracking Vesta with its own camera; prior to that it had relied on radio signals from Earth. Space.com has the story, complete with pictures of both Vesta and Dawn.
What makes this seem rather weird to me is that I can still remember the original Star Trek episode Spock’s Brain, in which Scotty stated that ion propulsion was significantly more advanced than the antimatter-powered warp engines the Enterprise used.