NASA asteroid-exploring Dawn spacecraft says a sad goodbye

James Marshall
November 4, 2018

Washington-Dawn, a NASA spacecraft that launched 11 years ago and studied two of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, has ended its mission after running out of fuel, officials said Thursday.

- "Astounding images" - Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the NASA science mission directorate in Washington, hailed Dawn's "vital science" and "incredible technical achievements".

NASA said that the data collect by the spacecraft was invaluable for researchers examining the history of the solar system.

Dawn's death is the second blow of a rapid one-two punch for space fans. Strict planetary protection protocols govern how NASA can dispose of crafts like Dawn, as they do not want to interfere with the chemistry on Ceres. Kepler will be decommissioned in the next week or two. Currently, it's in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, where it will remain for decades. For example, liquid water once flowed across the protoplanet's surface (likely after buried ice was melted by meteorite impacts), and Vesta sports a towering peak near its south pole that's almost as tall as Mars' famous Olympus Mons volcano. At Vesta, Dawn strengthened the connection between the asteroid and certain types of meteorites found on Earth, lending credence that the latter formed when the asteroid was struck in the past.

"Dawn was the first mission to visit Ceres and the first mission to visit Vesta".

Dawn was the first spacecraft to orbit two different extraterrestrial bodies.

Dawn Mission Director and Chief Engineer Marc Rayman said of the spacecraft, "The demands we put on Dawn were tremendous, but it met the challenge every time".

According to NASA, the Dawn mission has completed several tasks that no other mission has achieved. Mission team members determined these features to be salts, which were likely left behind when briny water from the subsurface bubbled up and boiled away into space.

What discoveries were made on the NASA Dawn mission?

Dawn also reinforced the idea that dwarf planets could have hosted oceans over a significant part of their history - and potentially still do. Zurbuchen said the scientific learning from Dawn's mission will go on.

"Dawn's data sets will be deeply mined by scientists working on how planets grow and differentiate, and when and where life could have formed in our Solar System".

The mission managers have concluded that the spacecraft has finally run out of hydrazine, the spacecraft's fuel, after it has now failed to communicate with mission control on Earth.

Dawn is dead, but Dawn is not gone: Today NASA said that the Dawn spacecraft has fallen out of contact with Earth, presumably because it's run out of the thruster fuel that was used to keep its antennas oriented toward Earth and its power-generating solar panels oriented toward the sun.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft turned science fiction into science fact by using ion propulsion to explore the two largest bodies in the main asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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