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LOS ANGELES (AP) ? After spending a year gazing at Vesta, NASA's Dawn spacecraft was set to cruise toward the most massive space rock in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter ? a voyage that will take nearly three years.

Firing its ion propulsion thrusters, Dawn had been slowly spiraling away from Vesta for more than a month until it was to pop free from its gravitational grip. Since its antenna was pointed away from Earth during this last maneuver, engineers would not know until Wednesday how it went.

The departure was considered ho-hum compared with other recent missions ? think Curiosity's white-knuckle "seven minutes of terror" dive into Mars' atmosphere.

"It's not a sudden event. There's no whiplash-inducing maneuver. There's no tension, no anxiety," said chief engineer Marc Rayman of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $466 million mission. "It's all very gentle and very graceful."

Launched in 2007, Dawn is on track to become the first spacecraft to rendezvous with two celestial bodies in a bid to learn about the solar system's evolution.

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Cool. I bet we're learning a lot about those big pieces of rock.

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Ceres has always been the sweet spot of this mission with Vesta the warmup. The possibility of a subsurface sea at Ceres with as much water as the northern Atlantic, or even plentiful water ice for spacecraft refueling and/or a small gateway base, is very intriguing.

Bring her on!! (Y)

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BTW: credit where credit is do as to who's participating - Orbital Sciences Corp. designed and built Dawn in partnership with mission science lead UCLA, the German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute.

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can't believe it's been a year since we got to Vesta! now two more years till we get to see Ceres up close. good job Dawn, keep at it! Thanks for the update Hum and Doc.

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Here we are a few weeks later and Dawn is already up to 170 meters/s and 323,000 km away from 4 Vesta. Floor it, baby :)

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still too slow, too slow! we need those VASIMR rockets NOWWW!

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I don't know why we're wasting our time... we've already found a diamond planet.

What else do we need? hehe

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