Dusk for Dawn: NASA's mission to Vesta and Ceres has ended


The Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel earlier this week, as expected, ending its nine and a half year mission of hunting for planets outside our solar system.

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.

Dawn was a mission of firsts, as it not only became the first spacecraft to orbit a celestial body between Mars and Jupiter (Vesta, the second-largest body in the main asteroid belt) but also the first to visit a dwarf planet and orbit two planetoids other than Earth.

After 11 years, 4.3 billion miles (6.9 billion kilometers) and two planetary orbits, NASA's Dawn mission has been declared over after the craft failed to communicate with Earth for two days in a row.

"To within our current uncertainty, there's zero usable hydrazine remaining", said Marc Rayman, chief engineer and mission director for Dawn at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during a presentation October 4 at the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany.

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"Dawn's data sets will be deeply mined by scientists working on how planets grow and differentiate, and when and where life could have formed in our solar system", said Carol Raymond, principal investigator for Dawn at JPL, in a statement. Now that it's no longer capable of communicating, much less maneuvering, it is expected to remain in orbit around Ceres for decades or longer.

The spacecraft itself may indeed be dead, but Dawn's contribution to science is far from over. Dawn was a spectacular success by any measure.

"The demands we put on Dawn were tremendous, but it met the challenge every time. It carried humankind on a truly incredible deep space adventure with stunning discoveries".

"The astounding images and data that Dawn collected from Vesta and Ceres are critical to understanding the history and evolution of our solar system", he said.

"To me, that is a fitting end to an extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition", Rayman said.