NASA’s Dawn Mission to Asteroid Belt Comes to End

NASA's Dawn mission is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Image Credit NASA

An artist’s depiction of Dawn. Image Credit NASA

Dawn missed scheduled communications sessions with NASA's Deep Space Network on October 31 and November 1. Researchers have known for about a month that Dawn was basically out of hydrazine, the fuel that kept the rocket's antennae situated toward Earth and helped turn the solar panels to the Sun to energize. NASA's Dawn became the only spacecraft to orbit a cosmic body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter in 2011 when it began orbiting around Vesta.

In 2015, Dawn became the first to visit a dwarf planet and go into orbit around two destinations beyond Earth.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the NASA science mission directorate in Washington, hailed Dawn's "vital science" and "incredible technical achievements". Its prolonged silence prompted NASA to declare it dead Thursday, two days after delivering eulogies to the planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope.

The unmanned rocket has voyage 4.3 billion miles (6.9 billion kilometers) since launched in 2007. It is expected to remain in orbit around Ceres for decades, but will no longer be able to communicate with Earth as it ran out of fuel.

Dawn's four science experiments furthered humanity's understanding of planet formation and showed that dwarf planets could once have hosted their own oceans, and may still.

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In 2016, NASA Osiris-Rex principal investigator Dante Lauretta said: "We're not anywhere near that kind of energy for an impact".

Dawn's demise is the latest in a series of spacecraft troubles for NASA. "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". Dawn spent nearly a decade studying a pair of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, learning as much as it could about those unusual worlds.

An artist's concept of Dawn arriving at Ceres. "Ceres and Vesta are important to the study of distant planetary systems, too, as they provide a glimpse of the conditions that may exist around young stars", Raymond said.

Shortly before Dawn used the last of its fuel, it maneuvered into a high, stable orbit, where scientists are confident it will stay for the next 50 years.

The Dawn mission was managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with spacecraft components contributed by European partners from Italy, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

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