Astrogeology Science Center

Dawn Spacecraft Contribution and Fate

30 October 2017

Halloween day prompts a chilling question: If you were a spacecraft, which fate would you prefer? Would you choose to remain in a stable orbit forever around Ceres or would you prefer to crash into Saturn and burn?

The Cassini spacecraft crashed into Saturn and was engulfed in flames in September 2017, while Dawn’s fate, projected for 2018, will be to remain in a stable orbit around Ceres once it runs out of hydrazine fuel. Until then, Dawn will continue to explore and transmit the latest and greatest observations about the rocky, icy, dwarf planet.

Ceres Photos

Dawn acquired these two images of Ceres on February 19 at a distance of 28,000 miles in its RC2 orbit. Photo Credit: NASA,JPL,CALTECH,/UCLA,MPS.DLR, and IDA.

The Dawn spacecraft was launched by NASA in September 2007, and was the first spacecraft to orbit both Vesta and Ceres. Dawn entered Vesta's orbit in 2011 and has now been in orbit around the dwarf planet, Ceres, since March 2015, capturing a great deal of new photos and enriching scientific study. Scientist Mike Bland of the USGS Astrogeology team makes use of these high resolution images and has made some very interesting observations about Ceres’ surface morphology. Don’t be the last one to find out what Mike’s observations are in the excerpt.

Excerpt: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft entered Ceres orbit in March of 2015 and has (to date) attained global imaging at resolutions as high as 410 m/pixel. In contrast to some pre-Dawn predictions [1], these images reveal a heavily cratered surface. The persistence of pristine crater morphologies over geologic time provides direct constraints on Ceres’ near-surface composition and structure, and requires a relatively high-viscosity near-surface more consistent with a thick, frozen rock regolith (more rock than ice) than the relatively pure water ice shell suggested by theoretical interior models [2, 3]. Other more exotic compositions with high viscosity are also possible. Read more.