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NASA’s Dawn spacecraft’s mission to Dwarf Planet Ceres may be delayed as Engineers evaluate Reaction Wheel

 

Written by Jia-Rui C. Cook
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA - National Aeronautics and Space AdministrationPasadena, CA – Engineers working on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft are assessing the status of a reaction wheel — part of a system that helps the spacecraft point precisely — after onboard software powered it off on August 8th.

Dawn’s mission is to study the geology and geochemistry of the giant asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres, the two most massive objects in the main asteroid belt. Dawn is now using its thrusters to point at Earth for communications. The rest of the spacecraft is otherwise healthy.

This artist's concept shows NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn's framing cameras. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn’s framing cameras. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

During a planned communications pass on August 9th, the team learned that the reaction wheel had been powered off. Telemetry data from the spacecraft suggest the wheel developed excessive friction, similar to the experience with another Dawn reaction wheel in June 2010.

The Dawn team demonstrated during the cruise to Vesta in 2011 that, if necessary, they could complete the cruise to Ceres without the use of reaction wheels.

The spacecraft has been orbiting Vesta since July 15th, 2011. Dawn concluded its primary science observations of Vesta on July 25th, 2012, and has been spiraling slowly away from the giant asteroid using its ion propulsion system. Ion thrusting was halted to accommodate the reaction wheel investigation, which may briefly delay the escape from Vesta.

“The Vesta mission has been spectacularly successful, and we are looking forward to the exciting Ceres mission ahead of us,” said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA.

JPL manages the Dawn mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) is responsible for overall Dawn mission science.

Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, VA, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

For more information about Dawn, visit: www.nasa.gov/dawn and http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov .


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