NASA’s Dawn asteroid mission ends as fuel runs out

Olive Hawkins
November 5, 2018

This view, which faces south, was captured on September 1, 2018, at an altitude of 2,340 miles (3,370 kilometers) as the spacecraft was ascending in its elliptical orbit.

Running low on fuel for some time, the Dawn spacecraft this week stopped communicating with flight controllers.

Dawn missed scheduled communications sessions with NASA's Deep Space Network on October 31 and November 1.

Scientists have known for about a month that Dawn was essentially out of hydrazine, the fuel that kept the spacecraft's antennae oriented toward Earth and helped turn its solar panels to the Sun to recharge.

Currently, Dawn is in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt - which is also the largest in the asteroid belt - where it will remain for at least 20 years.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, paid tribute to a mission that narrowly dodged cancellation during the run-up to its launch in 2007.

The spacecraft was moving as it captured the images with the PolyCam camera, and Bennu rotated 1.2 degrees during the almost one minute that elapsed between the first and the last snapshot.

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Dawn is referred as the only rocket to orbit an astronomical body in the fundamental space rock belt among Mars and Jupiter in 2011 when it started orbiting the space rock Vesta.

The space agency also says Dawn's observations, of the two large asteroid belt objects, support a concept that dwarf planets could have held oceans over a substantial part of their history - and perhaps still do.

"Today, we celebrate the end of our Dawn mission - its incredible technical achievements, the vital science it gave us, and the entire team who enabled the spacecraft to make these discoveries", Zurbuchen said in a news release. It's not just large asteroids: these so-called proto-planet represent that era in the history of the Solar system, formed when her worlds.

"In many ways, Dawn's legacy is just beginning", said Principal Investigator Carol Raymond at JPL.

Among the most astounding images were Dawn's views of Ceres' mysterious white spots, which reflected sunlight so brightly they were dubbed "alien headlights".

Described as "super-resolution" images, the pictures were created by combining eight seperate images of the asteroid. 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 odd worlds.

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.

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