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Vesta looms in this artist’s view. Dawn’s ion drive is weak, but chemical engines aren’t efficient enough to reach two asteroids. (Mid-Continent Research For Education And Learning)

Destination: Asteroid

After four years of spiraling out from Earth, the Dawn spacecraft closes in on its first target.

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The notion of a watery Ceres raises one last intriguing possibility. We won’t be sending astronauts there anytime soon, but the object’s water-rich splinters—which roam the inner solar system as near-Earth asteroids—could furnish propellants for future astronaut and robot expeditions. Dawn’s first close look at Vesta and Ceres, says Sykes, “takes asteroids out of the ‘Chicken Little’ realm”—where they’re seen only as threats—and enables us to picture using them someday as resources that “can leverage our future beyond Earth.”

Former astronaut Tom Jones would still like to head an expedition to an asteroid, but takes comfort in the certainty that asteroids are surely coming to us.

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