NASA’s asteroid belt spacecraft Dawn is about to run out of fuel
NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been crossing the asteroid belt for nearly a decade. He discovered water on the giant asteroid Vesta and ice volcanoes on the surface of Ceres, the belt’s largest object. But now her time is coming to an end.
Last year, NASA said Dawn ran out of fuel. According to a new announcement from the agency, the spacecraft will likely come to a stop sometime next month.
Dawn was launched in 2007 and arrived in the belt in 2011. For a few years it orbited the large asteroid Vesta, then in 2015 it arrived at Ceres, an asteroid so large that astronomers thought it was was acting from a planet when it was discovered two centuries ago. (it now shares the classification of dwarf planets with Pluto).
Before Dawn’s arrival, we had never seen these huge objects up close. It turns out that they are full of surprises. During her long mission, Dawn made invaluable contributions to science, including mapping the entire surface of both worlds, discovering water on Vesta, and discovering ice volcanoes on the surface of Ceres. Perhaps the most notable discovery Dawn ever made was the discovery of organic molecules on Ceres, meaning the dwarf planet has at least some of the building blocks of life.
This 2017 study was huge news. Ceres never had a dynamic atmosphere or events on its surface. It has hardly changed since its formation billions of years ago. For this reason, finding organic molecules on Ceres suggests that these molecules were likely present in the early days of the solar system, which in turn is a good sign for life elsewhere in the universe. This is the main reason why Dawn went to the asteroid belt in the first place: Ceres and Vesta are like time capsules of the early solar system, and studying them can tell us a lot about that time.
After three years of observing Ceres, time is running out for Dawn. At the start of the mission, the spacecraft’s reaction wheels broke, which meant the only way Dawn could maneuver was to use her thrusters and thruster. At some point over the next few weeks, Dawn will finally run out of Thruster. Then it will be stuck in space.
When that happens, NASA will have one last thing to do. He must make sure that Dawn never lands on the surface of Ceres. Dawn is contaminated with terrestrial bacteria, and NASA must ensure that these bacteria never spread to Ceres. To make this happen, Dawn will be placed in a stable orbit around Ceres before running out of fuel. Dawn will be able to stay in this orbit for several decades, until we decide to visit Ceres again.
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