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Dawn Sees Dusk — NASA Asteroid Explorer Goes Dark

5 Nov 2018, 01:07 UTC
Dawn Sees Dusk — NASA Asteroid Explorer Goes Dark
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Dawn fires its ion engine as it approaches the dwarf planet Ceres in this artist illustration. The spacecraft recently lost its ability to point its antenna toward Earth, ending the mission. NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft missed its schedule communication session with NASA’s Deep Space Network on both Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 this past week. After eliminating other causes, mission manages concluded that the spacecraft finally ran out of the fuel hydrazine, which it uses to point its antenna toward Earth for communications and turn its solar panels to the sun to recharge. While everything else may still function for a time, losing pointing ability and ultimately power means the end of the mission just as sure as your cellphone will die if you don’t charge the battery.
Dawn launched 11 ago to make close up studies of the asteroid belt’s two largest objects: asteroid 4 Vesta and the dwarf planet 1 Ceres. It’s still orbiting Ceres and expected to remain there for decades — 20 years for sure and probably at least 50 years. Variations in the density of material inside Ceres tugging this way and that on the spacecraft will slowly distort its orbit, which may ultimately bring ...

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