NASA has announced that the DAWN space probe will hitch a permanent orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres and will spend the rest of its life studying it. The mission which was supposed to end in 2016 has received a two-year extension to get more insight about the largest body in the asteroid belt.
Dawn is currently studying Vesta and Ceres. Launched in 2007, the spacecraft has sent back stunning images and data about both. NASA has now announced in a release that Dawn will remain at Ceres for the rest of its mission. It will travel towards the asteroid belt’s largest resident to gather all-new measurements of ice, salts and a tenuous intermittent atmosphere detected around the dwarf planet.
According to the NASA release, “the Dawn flight team is studying ways to maneuver Dawn into a new elliptical orbit, which may take the spacecraft to less than 120 miles from the surface of Ceres at closest approach. Previously, Dawn’s lowest altitude was 240 miles.”
Dawn will continue its observations at Ceres until the end of its mission. The observations which started in 2015 are expected to continue until the second half of 2018 when the probe runs out of Hydrazine fuel.
“A priority of the second Ceres mission extension is collecting data with Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, which measures the number and energy of gamma rays and neutrons,” NASA said. “This information is important for understanding the composition of Ceres’ uppermost layer and how much ice it contains.”
Dawn’s imaging equipment is capable of taking hi-res images of Ceres and studying its surface geology as well as measurements of mineralogy with its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer observing parts of Ceres in great detail.
According to the report, the newly scheduled mission will allow Dawn to be in orbit while the dwarf planet goes through perihelion. The perihelion is the point in the orbit where the planet is closest to its sun. This is estimated to occur in April 2018 in Ceres’ case.
As Ceres goes closer to the Sun the ice on the surface may turn to water vapor, which may, in turn, contribute to the “weak transient atmosphere detected by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory before Dawn’s arrival. Building on Dawn’s findings, the team has hypothesized that water vapor may be produced in part from energetic particles from the Sun interacting with ice in Ceres’ shallow surface,” said the report.
Dawn is the only spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial targets. The data it sent back from Vesta and Ceres have been crucial in understanding the objects in the asteroid belt.
The Dawn mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The whole mission is overlooked by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).