NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which studied two large objects in the asteroid belt, has officially run out of fuel, ending its mission to shed light on the solar system’s earliest days, but the spacecraft’s science legacy will live on.
Dawn was the first spacecraft to orbit two different extraterrestrial bodies. The mission was technically canceled twice before the spacecraft got off the ground, but Dawn launched in September 2007 with its sights set on the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, chosen for how little they resembled each other. While they are only two of the billions of objects in the asteroid belt, they contain a whopping 45 percent of its mass. NASA announced the end of Dawn’s asteroid mission’s end on Thursday (Nov. 1).
„Both Vesta and Ceres had previously only been viewed mostly as just faint smudges of light amidst the stars,“ Marc Rayman, Dawn’s mission director at NASA, told Space.com. „Now we have these richly detailed, intimate portraits of alien terrains and complex geology and just a wealth of detail that we had never really even imagined before, unveiling secrets that these bodies have held for billions of years.“ [Photos: Asteroid Vesta and NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft]
In order to succeed, the Dawn spacecraft needed a careful trajectory and a secret weapon — an ion propulsion system, which had only powered one previous mission. As the mission played out, that system gave engineers the flexibility to spend twice as long at Vesta as originally planned and nearly five times as long at Ceres.