NASA’s Dawn spacecraft may head for a mysterious third cosmic object

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft may head for a mysterious third cosmic object

The spacecraft finished its primary mission at Ceres on June 30.

After an epic journey that has culminated in a visit to the dwarf planet Ceres, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is wrapping up its primary mission — but it’s not done yet.

Dawn became the first spacecraft ever to visit a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two different cosmic bodies beyond the Earth-moon system. Dawn had previously visited the dwarf planet Vesta before leaving and heading to Ceres, where it is located now. The $467 million Dawn mission, which launched back in September 2007, wrapped up its primary mission June 30.

But Dawn will continue to observe Ceres, and mission team members may fly the probe to a third object in the asteroid belt, although exactly which object hasn’t been revealed.

Of course, NASA would have to approve the extension first. Dawn must leave Ceres by July 12 in order to have enough hydrazine fuel to fly to another object. If Dawn doesn’t leave, it can continue operating around Ceres until early 2017.

“Scientists have learned a great deal about these unique, massive residents of the asteroid belt through data from the mission,” a NASA statement reads. “Dawn has revealed that while Vesta is a dry body, Ceres could be as much as 25 percent water ice by mass. Dawn also discovered many intriguing features at both bodies — Vesta is home to a mountain whose height is more than twice that of Mount Everest, and Ceres has a crater called Occator with mysterious bright features that continue to spark scientific investigation.

“Dawn’s goal is to characterize the conditions and processes of its earliest history by investigating in detail two of the largest protoplanets remaining intact since their formation,” another statement adds. “Ceres and Vesta reside in the main asteroid belt, the extensive region between Mars and Jupiter, along with many other smaller bodies. Each followed a very different evolutionary path, constrained by the diversity of processes that operated during the first few million years of solar system evolution. When Dawn visits Ceres and Vesta, the spacecraft steps us back in solar system time.”

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