NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Ends 11-Year Mission

NASA's Dawn mission is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Image Credit NASA

An artist’s depiction of Dawn. Image Credit NASA

Dawn, a NASA spacecraft that launched 11 years ago and studied two of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, has ended its mission after running out of fuel, officials said Thursday.

Dawn missed two communication sessions with NASA's Deep Space Network the past two days, which means it has lost the ability to turn its antennae toward the Earth or its solar panels toward the sun.

Once the spacecraft lost the scheduled communication with NASA's Deep Space Network for two times on Wednesday and Thursday, the USA space agency officially declared the mission as "ended". "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).

"The goals we laid at Dawn, was incredible, but every time he did, says Rayman".

In 2011, it arrived at Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt that is nearly twice the size of California. In 2015, when Dawn went into orbit around Ceres, a dwarf planet that is also the largest world in the asteroid belt, the mission became the first to visit a dwarf planet and go into orbit around two destinations beyond Earth.

Dawn has registered about 6.9 billion miles on its odometer.

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Because of the life-on-Ceres question, NASA chose to keep Dawn spinning in orbit rather than sending the probe down to crash onto the dwarf planet's pockmarked surface. This is why the scientists studying Dawn's data believe that Ceres once hosted an ocean, and there could even be liquid beneath the surface. The "astounding" images collected by Dawn are shedding light on the history and evolution of our solar system, said NASA's science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen. As the first spaceship to visit a dwarf planet, Dawn has also proved vital in revealing that these dinky worlds have the potential to support oceans.

"In many ways, Dawn's legacy is just beginning", said Dawn's principal investigator Carol Raymond.

So, while the mission plan doesn't provide the closure of a final, fiery plunge - the way NASA's Cassini spacecraft ended past year, for example - at least this is certain: Dawn spent every last drop of hydrazine making science observations of Ceres and radioing them back so we could learn more about the solar system we call home. In addition to returning a carbon-rich asteroid sample and studying Bennu's surface and composition, NASA's OSIRIS-REx will also look into how sunlight affects its orbit and document its regolith, the layer of material covering its surface.

NASA's connection with the Dawn spacecraft has gone quiet.

Before arriving to Ceres, the spacecraft had recorded details about new phenomena that challenged everything we know about these dwarf planets.

Dawn will remain in orbit around Ceres for at least the next 20 years, although the engineers putting it into this orbit are confident that it could last 50 years. Northrop Grumman in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft.

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