NASA's Dawn spacecraft was launched on 27 September 2007, and has been in space for nearly 11 years exploring the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. They are the most massive objects of the asteroid belt and are located between Mars and Jupiter. Since their formation four and a half billion years ago, the two bodies have probably changed little and are therefore ideal to take a look far into the past, almost back to the dawn of our cosmic home.
The historic mission, which had been extended several times and far exceeded the expectations of the scientists, came to an end on 31 October 2018: radio contact with the probe stopped because it had run out of fuel as expected. But the data acquired until that moment will keep the scientists busy for a long time to come.
Varied impact craters, valleys, canyons and mountains among the highest in the Solar System are revealed on the first images of the asteroid Vesta.
An extraordinary mission has drawn to an end, after the NASA space probe Dawn fell silent on 31 October. On 27 September 2007, Dawn set off to explore the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, which are located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Over the next few weeks, the Dawn asteroid mission will run out of the fuel required for attitude control. The spacecraft will orbit around the small planet Ceres in the asteroid belt for decades, although it will be impossible for the researchers to stay in contact with it. But before that happens, the scientists are once more presenting significantly improved mapping of the largest object in the asteroid belt thanks to the German camera system on board – as is particularly apparent in the example of the biggest crater, Occator. “In the past year, by means of an elliptical orbit which brings Dawn as close as 35 kilometres above the surface, we have been able to acquire images of up to three metres per pixel,” states planetary scientist and camera-team member of the NASA Dawn mission Ralf Jaumann, from the German Aerospace Center (DLR), where the image data for the elevation model were processed. “This has provided us with image data that is almost 10 times more accurate – a fantastic success before the end of the mission.”
Ten years ago, NASA's Dawn space probe embarked on a mission destined to become one of the most exciting and scientifically productive in the history of unmanned exploration of the Solar System. On board is the German framing camera that is providing fundamental information on planetary formation from Vesta and Ceres.