NASA’s Dawn Mission is coming to its End

NASA’s Dawn Mission is coming to its End

Credit: The Verge

The Dawn Mission revolutionized the field of Planetary Science through its breathtaking imagery and engineering feats.

Dawn was launched by NASA in September 2007 with the intentions of studying 2 of the 3 known protoplanets (Ceres and Vesta) of the asteroid belt. The launch was executed from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as a Delta II-Heavy rocket was used to send the probe into space. Dawn is the first spacecraft to visit either Ceres or Vesta. Similarly, it is the first one to visit a dwarf planet. It achieved this feat in March 2015 by arriving at Ceres. In addition to that, it holds the title of the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies.

These are some highlights of an illustrious career of the Dawn mission which is coming to its end after 11 years of unprecedented performance. This mission was extended several times during its journey as it surpassed all the expectations of the astronomers. It is on the verge of running out of Hydrazine, a key fuel, due to which it will not be able to communicate with Earth, anymore. Lori Glaze, the Acting Director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, acknowledged the accomplishments of the Dawn Mission in the following words:

Although it will be sad to see Dawn’s departure from our mission family, we are intensely proud of its many accomplishments. Not only did this spacecraft unlock scientific secrets at these two small but significant worlds, it was also the first spacecraft to visit and orbit bodies at two extraterrestrial destinations during its mission. Dawn’s science and engineering achievements will echo throughout history.”

The fact that Dawn explored both Vesta and Ceres simply speaks for its abilities. It captured awesome images of canyons, mountains, and craters on Vesta from 2011 to 2012 before moving towards its next target, Ceres. It found mysterious bright spots and cryovolcano on the surface of the dwarf planet which were later described as salt deposits produced by the briny liquid from the interior of Ceres. Marc Rayman, the Chief Engineer and Mission Director of Dawn Mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), praised the spacecraft by saying,

Dawn’s legacy is that it explored two of the last uncharted worlds in the inner Solar System. Dawn has shown us alien worlds that for two centuries were just pinpoints of light amidst the stars. And it has produced these richly detailed, intimate portraits and revealed exotic, mysterious landscapes, unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

The journey to two extraterrestrial destinations was made possible due to the incorporation of the Ion Propulsion system into the space probe. Dawn pushed the stamina and capabilities of the system to achieve these remarkable feats and showed other missions that they should also strive to explore multiple destinations. It reached Vesta in 2011 and examined the protoplanets for 14 months before it was engineered out of orbit. Two years later, it was designated the task of exploring Ceres and it is busy in collecting data from the dwarf planet since 2015.

The name of the mission is totally in accordance with its work as the primary purpose of Dawn was to know more about the beginning of the solar system. That’s the reason why Ceres and Vesta were targeted as they are survivors of the earliest part of history. The mission achieved great success because both the protoplanets revealed some amazing insights about the original building blocks of the solar system. Carol Raymond, the Principal Investigator of the Dawn Mission, said,

Vesta and Ceres have each told their story of how and where they formed, and how they evolved — a fiery magmatic history that led to rocky Vesta and a cooler, water-rich history that resulted in the ancient ocean world Ceres. These treasure troves of information will continue to help us understand other bodies in the Solar System far into the future.”

Dawn made some spectacular findings at the Ceres but the most important one came at the region of Ernutet Crater as large quantities of organic molecules were found. Given the fact that organics are among the building blocks of life, it was a massive discovery. Having said that, the scientists failed to determine whether these organic molecules were formed by biological processes or not. Similarly, the achievements of the Dawn Mission at Vesta are also unparalleled. Vesta is categorized as an asteroid but Dawn showed that it had experienced a lot of planet-like processes in its lifetime. It also upgraded the information about Rheasilvia, a gigantic basin on Vesta, by showing that it is twice as high as the Mount Everest. In light of all these accomplishments, one thing is for sure that the Dawn Mission will be remembered for a long, long time.

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