RIP Dawn: NASA spacecraft’s 11-year mission comes to an end

NASA’s connection with the Dawn spacecraft has gone quiet. If this were a science-fiction movie, you would expect some kind of alien foul play, but it turns out Dawn’s ending is even more sad: having run out of hydrazine, it’s now like a tortoise stuck on its back. It can neither point its antenna back at Earth to transmit data, nor turn around to recharge its batteries from the sun.

If you’re feeling a sense of deja vu at this point, you may have read that the Kepler Telescope also ran out of fuel this week. Isn’t that always the way?

Having traveled some 4.3 billion miles over the course of its 11-year mission, it’s hard to say it had a bad innings, but it’s a sad ending all the same. During those 4,053 days, Dawn became the first spaceship to orbit two destinations beyond Earth, which puts most CVs into perspective.

“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 from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in a statement. “The astounding images and data that Dawn collected from Vesta and Ceres are critical to understanding the history and evolution of our solar system.”

Launched back in 2007, Dawn’s first mission was to collect data on Vesta, the second largest world in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where it arrived in 2011. Then in 2015, Dawn moved onto the largest world in the belt: the dwarf planet Ceres.   

According to NASA, the data Dawn beamed back to Earth was helpful in a number of ways, most significantly helping us understand the importance of location in the way the solar system formed. 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.

“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,” said mission director Marc Rayman from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “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.”

It’s going to be one of those long goodbyes. Given it ran out of fuel around Ceres, which is a world of interest to our scientists studying how the chemistry of worlds can affect life, NASA has to follow a strict planetary protection protocol. It will remain in orbit around Ceres for at least another 20 years – and possibly as many as 50. Not the fiery end that saw off Cassini, then, but quietly dignified in its own way. RIP, Dawn.


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