Goodbye, Dawn: NASA’s Only Mission To The Asteroid Belt Ends

After 11 years in space, Dawn has reached it 'dawnouement.'

An illustration of the spacecraft Dawn as it approaches an encounter with Ceres.
Marc Ward / Shutterstock

After 11 years in space, Dawn has reached it 'dawnouement.'

Only two days after we said goodbye to the Kepler Space Telescope, as the Inquisitr reported earlier this week, another iconic NASA mission has come to an end. This time, it’s curtains for the Dawn spacecraft — an intrepid little probe that made history in all of its endeavors.

Similar to Kepler, Dawn has run out of fuel, which means that the probe is no longer able to sustain its scientific expedition into the inner solar system. The spacecraft has dropped out of contact with Earth, NASA announced today, and is currently incapable of orienting itself and of turning its solar arrays toward the sun.

After Dawn missed two scheduled communication sessions with mission control during the past two days, the space agency concluded that the probe can no longer point its antennas to Earth and transmit data.

Launched on September 27, 2007, the Dawn mission completed an incredible journey through space that took it within the asteroid belt to study its most imposing residents — the dwarf planet Ceres and asteroid Vesta.

Propelled by ion engines, Dawn was the first spacecraft to venture into this previously uncharted territory, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The probe reached Vesta in 2011 and became the first spacecraft to orbit a body in the asteroid belt. A few years later, Dawn moved on to Ceres, thereby becoming the first probe to visit a dwarf planet.

Its fantastic odyssey carried it to two extraterrestrial bodies over the course of a single mission; also a first in space exploration. To read up on the highlights of the Dawn mission, check out this Inquisitr article.

“Eleven years. Billions of miles. Extended expeditions to two worlds from the dawn of our solar system, Vesta and Ceres. Now my mission has come to an end. To all the people who made this journey possible, thank you,” the Dawn team tweeted earlier today.

Alongside the heartfelt goodbye message, the Dawn mission team posted a gorgeous photo of Ceres and the Occator Crater, the bright feature visible in the right. According to NASA, this was one of the last views that the Dawn spacecraft beamed back before signing off.

The orbit of Ceres has now become Dawn’s final resting place. Unlike Cassini, which ended its mission last year with an epic plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, Dawn will remain suspended around Ceres for at least 20 years — so as not to disrupt the chemistry on the dwarf planet’s surface.

“Following NASA’s strict planetary protection protocols, my engineers have placed me in an orbit around Ceres that should remain stable for decades. I’ll continue to circle as a satellite around one of the worlds I studied for so long. That’s no moon. That’s me,” Dawn tweeted a few hours ago.

Throughout its historic mission, Dawn traveled about 4.3 billion miles and gathered invaluable data on the formation of Vesta and Ceres. Since these planet-like worlds are regarded as time capsules from the beginning of our solar system, as noted by CNN, the mission has shed new light on how the early solar system formed and evolved — revealing that location greatly influences the way in which planets and asteroids are shaped.

“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 Marc Rayman, Mission Director and Chief Engineer at JPL. “It’s hard to say goodbye to this amazing spaceship, but it’s time.”

Just like in Kepler’s case, Dawn’s wealth of data will be keeping scientists busy for a long time.

“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 of the Dawn mission at JPL.

“In many ways, Dawn’s legacy is just beginning.”