NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is finally dead

Another NASA spacecraft runs out of steam, 2nd this week

It went into orbit around Ceres, a dwarf planet that is also the largest world in the asteroid belt.

Today, NASA revealed that the Dawn spacecraft, which was studying some of the larger objects in our Solar System's asteroid belt, has also run out of fuel.

This photo of Ceres and one of its key landmarks, Ahuna Mons, was one of the last views Dawn transmitted before it completed its mission. The mission will end this fall, when the spacecraft runs out of hydrazine, which keeps it oriented and in communication with Earth.

- "Astounding images" - Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the NASA science mission directorate in Washington, hailed Dawn's "vital science" and "incredible technical achievements".

The data collected by Dawn helped scientists better understand the two worlds, as well as broader questions about the formation and evolution of the solar system.

'The demands we put on Dawn were tremendous, but it met the challenge every time.

Mission director and chief engineer Marc Rayman insisted he wasn't sad about the news. The spacecraft itself may indeed be dead, but Dawn's contribution to science is far from over.

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This false-color image shows the dwarf planet Ceres.

Detailed readings from Dawn's suite of four science instruments led scientists to conclude that the spots were deposits of sodium carbonate, pushed up from the dwarf planet's interior.

Dawn left Vesta in September 2012. It also mapped out deposits of odd, dark material on Vesta's surface, which may be further evidence of an impact that threw the material from the impactor across the asteroid.

Dawn also found organics in several locations on Ceres' surface.

Interplanetary station Dawn, which, since 2007, explored the Solar system and visited the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, has stopped communicating.

Dawn can no longer keep its antennae trained on Earth to communicate with mission control or turn its solar panels to the Sun to recharge, according to the U.S. space agency. NASA says its spacecraft clocked around 4.3 billion miles, having arrived at Vesta in 2011 following its 2007 launch. Now, it will remain in orbit around Ceres for decades, circling the world for at least 20 to 50 years. Such spaceflight feats were made possible by Dawn's superefficient ion engines, mission team members have said. Planetary protection protocols now in place prohibit it from touching the surface for at least 20 years, which is enough time for a potential follow-up mission if the world is given a higher priority for protection. Strict planetary protection protocols govern how NASA can dispose of crafts like Dawn, as they do not want to interfere with the chemistry on Ceres. Comparing those samples to what researchers have learned about Vesta and Ceres will bring our picture of the solar system's past and present into ever-sharper focus. Though both endings were expected losses, both have silver linings.

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