Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica | The Dawn spacecraft exploring the asteroid belt has gone dark

Hexbyte – Tech News – Ars Technica |

RIP Dawn —

Dawn was critical to understanding the history and evolution of our Solar System.


Hexbyte - Tech News - Ars Technica | An artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft at Ceres.
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An artist’s concept of the Dawn spacecraft at Ceres.

Another day, another iconic space mission going dark. On Tuesday, NASA announced that its exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope had run out of hydrazine fuel, and the craft would be commanded to cease operations. Now, the Dawn spacecraft at the dwarf planet Ceres must face the same fate.

On Wednesday, the spacecraft failed to phone home, and it missed a scheduled connection on Thursday as well. This means that like the Kepler mission, Dawn has run out of hydrazine fuel, which the vehicle needs to orient itself and keep its antennas aligned with Earth. With no fuel, the spacecraft also cannot keep its solar panels turned toward the Sun.

This was not unexpected. Prior to this, because NASA did not want to potentially contaminate the surface of Ceres due to planetary-protection concerns, mission controllers placed Dawn into an orbit around Ceres that will remain stable for decades. It is now a silent sentinel in orbit around the dwarf world it has studied since 2015.

“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,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in a news release. “The astounding images and data that Dawn collected from Vesta and Ceres are critical to understanding the history and evolution of our Solar System.”

During its 11-year mission, Dawn visited the two largest worlds of the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres. Over the course of nearly seven billion kilometers of travel, powered by ion engines, Dawn delivered clues about how the Solar System formed and provided evidence that dwarf planets could have hosted oceans during their history and may still do so today.

  • The center of Occator crater, shown in enhanced color. The picture shows a slightly variable color dome in a smooth-walled pit. The dome’s origin remains a mystery.


    NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

  • A global map of Ceres shows its surfaces in enhanced color.


    NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

  • Occator Crater, measuring 57 miles (92km) across and 2.5 miles (4km) deep, contains the brightest area on Ceres.


    NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

  • Zooming in on the crater itself. Notice the terraces on the right side of this image, where material has slumped from the crater wall to the floor.


    NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

  • A close-up shot of the bright spots in the middle of the crater, believed to be salt deposits. Earlier images showed a single spot, but now there are clearly many.


    NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

  • This image shows another crater of interest, Haulani, which has a small mountain range in its center.


    NASA/JPL-Caltech

  • Visible and infrared views of the Haulani crater. The image at far left shows brightness variations in Haulani. The view at center is a false-color image, highlighting differences in the types of rock and ejected material around the crater. The image at right shows information related to temperature. Bluer regions are colder zones and redder regions are warmer.


    NASA/JPL-Caltech

  • This image shows Kupalo Crater, one of the youngest craters on Ceres. It has bright material exposed on its rim and walls, which could be salts. Its flat floor likely formed from impact melt and debris.


    NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

  • Ahuna Mons is one of the most striking finds on the surface of Ceres, rising about 5km above the surface, higher than any mountain in the United States.

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