Published: Sun, November 04, 2018
Research | By Raquel Erickson

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is finally dead

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is finally dead

According to the space agency, Dawn was supposed to communicate with its team on October 31 and again today, but neither session took place. - Once the management group has ruled out other possible causes of lack of communication, experts came to the conclusion that aboard the station ended the hydrazine fuel, the use of which enables the station to maintain orientation in flight. But there is no solution for a lack of fuel, and though the spacecraft would have shut down its systems and run off battery power, that battery can not be recharged if the craft is unable to orient its solar panels toward the Sun.

The Dawn spacecraft ("dawn") was launched from the spaceport at Cape Canaveral 11 years ago, on 27 September 2007, and since then covered about 6.9 billion miles.

During its 11 years in space, Dawn sent back unprecedented closeups of the asteroid Vesta as well as Ceres, which is the largest known asteroid and the smallest confirmed dwarf planet.

In 2011, when Dawn arrived at Vesta, the second largest world in the main asteroid belt, the spacecraft became the first to orbit a body in the region between Mars and Jupiter, NASA said.

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. It carried humankind on a truly wonderful deep space adventure with stunning discoveries".

The early birthplace of bodies was key to how the early solar system organised and evolved. That's intentional, as Ceres has conditions that could be right for life, and engineers want to prevent contact between the spacecraft (and any potential Earth microbes it may carry) and the dwarf planet.

Dawn also spotted a 2.5-mile-high (4 km) "lonely mountain", by far the tallest surface feature on the dwarf planet.

"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".

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

"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", Ms. Raymond said. Particularly with the discovery of 'Oumuamua, a comet from another solar system, Dawn's data on Ceres and Vesta will help scientists rewind the clock to better understand how planetary systems - our own and others - form.

The Dawn mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The craft will continue to orbit Ceres for at least 20 years, though many on the team put that number closer to 50.

Dawn, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are global partners on the mission team.

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