Monday, 10 December, 2018

NASA's Dawn mission to asteroid belt ends

Another NASA spacecraft runs out of steam, 2nd this week NASA asteroid-exploring Dawn spacecraft says a sad goodbye
Cary Marshall | 04 November, 2018, 12:29

The spacecraft will remain in orbit around Ceres for decades, according to NASA, which determined the issue after eliminating other possible causes for the missed communication sessions. "The astounding images and data that Dawn collected from Vesta and Ceres are critical to understanding the history and evolution of our solar system". Without the ability to control its pointing, Dawn won't be able to orient its solar panels to recharge nor position its antennas to talk with Earth. Then it moved on to the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015, becoming the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet and the only spacecraft to orbit one, NASA said.

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.

Because the mission control center didn't plan the station descent to the surface of Ceres, Dawn will remain in this orbit for at least 20 years, and with 99% probability in 50 years.

"The demands we put on Dawn were tremendous, but it met the challenge every time", mission director and chief engineer Marc Rayman, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in the same statement. "It's hard to say goodbye to this awesome spaceship, but it's time", said Marc Rayman, Mission Director and Chief Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). They mapped Vesta and Ceres from orbit instead of using telescopes or flybys for more in-depth data. Propelled by ion engines, the spacecraft achieved many firsts along the way. "It carried humankind on a truly incredible deep space adventure with stunning discoveries".

NASA has lost a second spacecraft this week, ending a fruitful mission in the asteroid belt.

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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. Scientists regard these two bodies as leftovers from the solar system's planet-formation period, which explains the mission's name.

Among its accomplishments, Dawn showed how important location was to the way objects in the early solar system formed and evolved.

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

The Dawn spacecraft carried a science payload of four instruments: Framing Camera, Visible & Infrared Spectrometer, Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector, and Gravity Science. "Ceres and Vesta are important for studies of distant planetary systems, because they provide an opportunity to understand the conditions that exist in the vicinity of young stars", - said the scientific head of mission Carol Raymond. The dwarf planet is therefore an intriguing target for astrobiologists, especially when another Dawn discovery is taken into account: The probe detected organic molecules, the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it, on Ceres' surface. JPL is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are worldwide partners on the mission team.

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