Published: Mon, November 05, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

NASA’s Dawn mission to asteroid belt ends

NASA’s Dawn mission to asteroid belt ends

After Dawn missed out on communications sessions on Wednesday and today, NASA declared an end to the mission.

After the flight team eliminated other possible causes for the missed communications, mission managers concluded that the spacecraft finally ran out of hydrazine, the fuel which keeps the spacecraft oriented and in communication with Earth, NASA said in a statement late on Thursday. The 11-year-old spacecraft has no more energy to point its antennae to Earth to communicate or turn its solar panels toward the sun to recharge. "The demands we made on Dawn were tremendous, but she always faced the challenge".

Dawn became the only spacecraft ever to orbit a cosmic body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter in 2011 when it began circling the asteroid Vesta.

Propelled by an efficient ion engine, Dawn delved into the unknown and achieved what's never been attempted before: it is the first mission to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt, the first to visit a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two deep-space destinations, according to NASA. The "astounding" images collected by Dawn are shedding light on the history and evolution of our solar system, said NASA's science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen.

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It's the second historic NASA mission this week to run out of fuel and come to an end, as NASA's Kepler Space Telescope did Tuesday. 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. As the first spaceship to visit a dwarf planet, Dawn has also proved vital in revealing that these dinky worlds have the potential to support oceans.

"In many ways, Dawn's legacy is just beginning". In addition to returning a carbon-rich asteroid sample and studying Bennu's surface and composition, NASA's OSIRIS-REx will also look into how sunlight affects its orbit and document its regolith, the layer of material covering its surface. "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", said Principal Investigator Carol Raymond at JPL.

The Dawn mission launched in September 2007. Dawn's orbital path is stable enough to remain in orbit for at least 20 years, and engineers have more than 99 percent confidence the orbit will last for at least 50 years.

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