Washington – After the Dawn spacecraft completed its primary mission at the dwarf planet Ceres, the engineering team of the project requested to send the probe to another asteroid, but the NASA rejected the idea. Instead, the spacecraft will remain in Ceres’ orbit.

On June 30, the Dawn spacecraft officially completed its mission at Ceres, a dwarf planet the probe has been orbiting for a year. The spacecraft made interesting discoveries, like capturing bright spots that turned out to be water. After finding out there is remaining fuel in the spacecraft, the scientists in charge of the project proposed to extend its mission and travel to the planet Adeola.


Dawn orbited the protoplanet Vesta and is now in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres as part of its mission to characterize the conditions and processes that shaped our solar system. Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory NASA

Dawn departed on 2007 with the mission to visit the Solar System’s asteroid belt, and collect data for further study. It arrived at asteroid 4 Vesta, its first destination, in July 2011. After a year, the spacecraft moved to Ceres, the largest known object in the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter, arriving in 2015 and staying there ever since.

Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for Dawn, said at a meeting of the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, that extending the mission of the Dawn to Adeona would bring more productive and interesting findings than the ones it would bring if it remains at Ceres, according to Space News.

Since 2012, while still in Vesta’s orbit, the team of the project started to look for ways to conserve the spacecraft’s supply of hydrazine fuel, because it had been presenting problems that threatened to drain all of the fuel before completing the Ceres’ mission. The changes they did came out so well there is fuel enough to add another mission for the Dawn. “In 2016, we ended up not only achieving our intended mission but with a surplus which we can now use to do something else,” Raymond added, as quoted by Space News.

The NASA first approved the mission by mistake

On July 1, the NASA updated the status certain planetary missions, announcing the extension of seven missions at the Moon and Mars, and approving the request to send New Horizons to a Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 in January 2019. A senior review of NASA declined the proposal of sending Dawn to a then-unnamed asteroid and stated that the spacecraft should remain in Ceres’ orbit.

Nonetheless, on June 30, an update posted on the Dawn website identified the asteroid as 145 Adeona, and the release confirmed the mission, stating the spacecraft would arrive in 2019. Minutes later, the post was taken down, and the NASA declared it was a mistake.

Director of NASA’s planetary division Jim Green said that the agency decided to keep Dawn at Ceres because of the scientific discoveries it could bring staying until the asteroid gets to its perihelion, which is the part of the orbit that is closer to the sun. Studying Ceres until then has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” he said, according to Space News.

If approved, the Dawn would have left Ceres this month and orbited the Sun for three years, until arriving at Adeona in May 2019.

With the proposal denied, and if the probe does not present any problems, hydrazine left should keep Dawn operating until March or April 2017.

The other extensions approved by the senior review include the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter, the Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers, the Mars Odyssey orbiter and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

Source: Space News