Dawn set to move to its third mapping orbit

Artist's impression of Dawn orbiting Ceres(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Having already provided us with numerous insights into the nature of the dwarf planet Ceres, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is ready to move into a new, lower mapping orbit, which will provide the most detailed views so far.

Since arriving at Ceres on March 6, the intrepid probe has provided an abundance of stunning images of the planet's surface, zooming in on the mysterious white spots which had baffled scientists during the spacecraft's approach.

However, the mission to date has not gone without incident. June 30 saw the robotic explorer suffer an orientation anomaly due to a glitch in one of the spacecraft's gimbal systems, a vital element of the probe tasked with manipulating one of its three ion thrusters. Due to the error, Dawn was forced into a safe mode, however the problem has since been resolved by switching the spacecraft to ion engine #2.

The next five weeks will see Dawn transition to its third mapping orbit, which will take it as close as 900 miles (1,448 km) from the planet's surface. From its new position, Dawn will use its advanced suite of scientific instruments to unlock more of Ceres' secrets, prior to moving to its final low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO).

LAMO is expected to be the final stage of the probe's journey, after which its hydrazine fuel supply will run out, rendering the spacecraft unable to orientate its solar panels towards the Sun. Once unable to manipulate its orientation, the onboard batteries will fail in a matter of hours.

It is expected that roughly 50 years after Dawn ceases to function, the spacecraft's orbit will finally decay enough for Dawn to impact on the surface of Ceres.

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