Dawn Mission Status: Spacecraft Tests Ion Engine

Oct 10, 2007
Artist's concept of Dawn spacecraft
Artist's concept of Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL

NASA's Dawn spacecraft successfully completed the first test of its ion propulsion system over the weekend. The system is vital to the success of Dawn's 8-year, 1.6 billion-mile (3-billion-kilometer) journey to asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres.

"Dawn is our baby and over the weekend it took some of its first steps," said Dawn project manager Keyur Patel of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We have two months more checkout and characterization remaining before Dawn is considered mission operational, but this is a great start."

Members of the Dawn mission control team have been sending up commands and checking out spacecraft systems ever since its successful launch on Sept. 27. The first test firing of one of Dawn's three ion engines was the culmination of several days of careful preparation.

On Saturday, Oct. 6 at 6:07 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time (9:07 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time), the ion propulsion system began thrusting. Over the next 27 hours, spacecraft controllers and navigators at JPL monitored the engine's performance as it was put through its paces.

"We evaluated the engine's capabilities at five different throttle levels," said Jon Brophy, the Dawn project's ion propulsion manager at JPL. "From flight idle through full throttle, the engine performed flawlessly."

Dawn's ion engines are extremely frugal powerhouses. The 27 hours of thrusting from the ion engine resulted in the consumption of less than .28 kilograms (10 ounces) of the spacecraft's xenon fuel supply -- less than the contents of a can of soda. Dawn's fuel tank carries 425 kilograms (937 pounds) of xenon propellant. Over their lifetime, Dawn's three ion propulsion engines will fire cumulatively for about 50,000 hours (over five years) -- a record for spacecraft.

Dawn will begin its exploration of asteroid Vesta in 2011 and the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015. These two icons of the asteroid belt have been witness to so much of our solar system's history. By utilizing the same set of instruments at two separate destinations, scientists can more accurately formulate comparisons and contrasts.

Dawn's science instrument suite will measure shape, surface topography, tectonic history, elemental and mineral composition, and will seek out water-bearing minerals. In addition, the Dawn spacecraft itself and how it orbits both Vesta and Ceres will be used to measure the celestial bodies' masses and gravity fields.

Source: NASA

Explore further: Four Galileo satellites at ESA test centre

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Dawn operating normally after safe mode triggered

Sep 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —The Dawn spacecraft has resumed normal ion thrusting after the thrusting unexpectedly stopped and the spacecraft entered safe mode on September 11. That anomaly occurred shortly before a planned ...

Vesta in Dawn's rear view mirror

Sep 11, 2012

(Phys.org)—NASA's Dawn mission is releasing two parting views of the giant asteroid Vesta, using images that were among the last taken by the spacecraft as it departed its companion for the last year.

Dawn craft to depart asteroid for dwarf planet

Sep 05, 2012

One asteroid down, one to go. After spending a year gazing at Vesta, NASA's Dawn spacecraft was set to cruise toward the most massive space rock in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter—a voyage that ...

Dawn spacecraft prepares for trek toward dwarf planet

Aug 30, 2012

(Phys.org)—NASA's Dawn spacecraft is on track to become the first probe to orbit and study two distant solar system destinations, to help scientists answer questions about the formation of our solar system. ...

Dawn Engineers Assess Reaction Wheel

Aug 14, 2012

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 Aug. 8. ...

Recommended for you

Four Galileo satellites at ESA test centre

8 minutes ago

ESA engineers unwrapped a welcome Christmas present: the latest Galileo satellite. The navigation satellite will undergo a full checkout in Europe's largest satellite test facility to prove its readiness ...

Funding challenges for Orion and SLS

32 minutes ago

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress, which exists to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve ...

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Dec 19, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

Dec 19, 2014

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

vh51198
not rated yet Oct 11, 2007
This is a great article. However, please correct the unit conversion error in the picture caption - 1.6 billion km is not equivalent to 3 billion miles. The correct conversion in 994,193,907.6 miles.
Thanks, V

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.