Tech

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is dead, after an eleven year exploration in the astroid belt

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which explored two of the largest objects in the asteroid belts, missed its last two check-ins on October 31st and November 1st. In the absence of a distinct signal, NASA announced that Dawn had run out of fuel, officially concluding its mission.

This is the 2nd time this week that NASA researchers have had to abandon one of their space aircraft missions. A few days ago, the Kepler Space Telescope also ran out of fuel, and similarly forced its mission into retirement.

Those working on the project already knew this was going to happen. In June, NASA put Dawn into its closest orbit yet centered around the dwarf planet Ceres, knowing it was on its last fuel source. Though it had been anticipated, many of the engineers were still sad to see it end.

“The fact that my car’s license plate frame proclaims, ‘My other vehicle is in the main asteroid belt,’ shows how much pride I take in Dawn. The demands we put on Dawn were tremendous, but it met the challenge every time. It’s hard to say goodbye to this amazing spaceship, but it’s time.”

A few months ago, Rayman wrote an emotional description of what researchers determined would happen to the spacecraft when it died out. As it becomes unable to steady itself, its computer system will run a series of checks, trying to stay on course. At this point though, nothing will be left to propel Dawn’s thrusters.

Dawn’s mission was first launched in September 2007 to study the protoplanet Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, both residing in the asteroid belt 330 miles and 590 miles from earth respectively. The spacecraft then arrived at Vesta in July 2011, examining the object for 14 months. The probe brought some intriguing details about Vesta to light, such as proof that liquid water historically flowed across the protoplanet’s surface and a massive peak near its south pole that’s as tall as Mars’ Olympus Mons volcano and twice the size of Mt. Everest.

The fact that the two objects were so different provided researchers with a more nuanced view of the early Solar System. Vesta is similar to inner planets and likely formed in close proximity to its current location. Ceres contains some icy and evaporative materials on its surface, inferring that it would have had to form further away from the sun before moving to its current location.

Despite Dawn’s demise, the data it collected over the last eleven years is invaluable to the field of space exploration and research, and will be examined for years to come.

Principal investigation of the Dawn mission, Carol Raymond, says:

“In many ways, Dawn’s legacy is just beginning”