NASA’s Dawn mission to strange places in our solar system ends

01:27 - Source: CNN/NASA
Hundreds more worlds in our solar system?
CNN —  

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has run out of fuel and dropped out of contact with mission control, the agency said Thursday.

This ends the spacecraft’s 11-year mission, which sent it on a 4.3 billion-mile journey to two of the largest objects in our solar system’s main asteroid belt. Dawn visited Vesta and Ceres, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit two deep-space destinations.

Dawn missed two communication sessions with NASA’s Deep Space Network the past two days, which means it has lost the ability to turn its antennae toward the Earth or its solar panels toward the sun. The end of the mission is not unexpected, as the spacecraft has been low on fuel for some time.

It’s the second historic NASA mission this week to run out of fuel and come to an end, as NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope did Tuesday.

“Today, we celebrate the end of our Dawn mission – its incredible technical achievements, the vital science it gave us and the entire team who enabled the spacecraft to make these discoveries,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The astounding images and data that Dawn collected from Vesta and Ceres are critical to understanding the history and evolution of our solar system.”

Vesta and Ceres are considered to be like time capsules from the beginning of our solar system. The experiments Dawn carried out enabled astronomers to look at the different ways Vesta and Ceres formed and evolved, as well as revealing that dwarf planets can also host oceans.

Vesta probably formed in the inner solar system and stayed between Mars and Jupiter, and it evolved just like the other rocky planets there. Its craters provided a road map of impacts on the ancient surface, suggesting that large planets crashed into it. This also suggests that planets were “born big,” rather than starting small and growing.