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: Image: The colors of sunset over the ISS

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA spacecraft nears historic dwarf planet arrival

Mar 02, 2015

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has returned new images captured on approach to its historic orbit insertion at the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn will be the first mission to successfully visit a dwarf planet when it enters ...

The revolutionary ion engine that took spacecraft to Ceres

Mar 09, 2015

The NASA spacecraft Dawn has spent more than seven years travelling across the Solar System to intercept the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Now in orbit around Ceres, the probe has returned the first images and data from these dist ...

Recommended for you

Russian, American ready for a year in space

7 hours ago

The Russian astronaut heading off for a year in space says he'll miss the natural landscapes on Earth. His American counterpart jokes he won't miss his twin brother.

Image: The colors of sunset over the ISS

19 hours ago

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti took these images from the International Space Station during her six-month mission. The Progress cargo ship and Soyuz crew spacecraft reflect sunlight as our star sets ...

Feud on Earth but peace in space for US and Russia

22 hours ago

Hundreds of kilometres below on Earth, their governments are locked in a standoff over Ukraine—but up in space, Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts are still working together side by side.

Japan launches replacement spy satellite

22 hours ago

Japan on Thursday successfully launched a replacement spy satellite, its aerospace agency said, as an existing device comes to the end of its working life.

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.