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Dawn is a mission designed to rendezvous and orbit the asteroids 4 Vesta and 1 Ceres. The scientific objectives of the mission are to characterize the asteroids' internal structure, density, shape, size, composition and mass and to return data on surface morphology, cratering, and magnetism. These measurements will help determine the thermal history, size of the core, role of water in asteroid evolution and what meteorites found on Earth come from these bodies, with the ultimate goal of understanding the conditions and processes present at the solar system's earliest epoch and the role of water content and size in planetary evolution. The data returned will include, for both asteroids, full surface imagery, full surface spectrometric mapping, elemental abundances, topographic profiles, gravity fields, and mapping of remnant magnetism, if any.

Spacecraft and Subsystems

The Dawn spacecraft is generally box-shaped (1.64 x 1.27 x 1.77 m) and made of aluminum and graphite composite with a dry mass of 747.1 kg and a fueled launch mass of 1217.7 kg. The spacecraft core is a graphite composite cylinder, with the titanium hydrazine and xenon tanks mounted inside. Mounting, access, and other panels are aluminum core with aluminum facesheets. Two solar panel wings extend 19.7 m tip-to-tip and are mounted on opposite sides of the spacecraft. A parabolic fixed 1.52 m high gain dish antenna is mounted on one side of the spacecraft in the same plane as the solar arrays. Three low gain antennas are also mounted on the spacecraft. A 5 m long magnetometer boom extends from the top panel of the spacecraft. Also mounted on the top panel is the instrument bench, holding the cameras, mapping spectrometer, laser altimeter, and star trackers. A gamma ray / neutron spectrometer is mounted on the top panel as well.

The two 2.3 x 8.3 meter solar arrays, composed of InGaP/InGaAs/Ge triple-junction cells, provide 10.3 kW at 1 AU (1.3 kW at end-of-life at 3 AU) to drive the spacecraft (22-35 V) and the solar electric ion propulsion system (80-140 V). Power is stored in a 35 Ah NiH2 battery. The ion propulsion consists of three ion thrusters and is based on the Deep Space 1 spacecraft ion drive, using xenon which is ionized and accelerated by electrodes. The xenon ion engines have a maximum thrust at 2.6 kW input power of 92 mN and a specific impulse of 3200 to 1900 s. The 30-cm diameter thrusters are two-axis gimbal mounted at the base of the spacecraft. The xenon tank held 425 kg of propellant at launch.

Attitude control is maintained by reaction wheels and twelve 0.9 N hydrazine engines placed around the spacecraft. The hydrazine tank holds 45.6 kg propellant at launch. The hydrazine thrusters can also be used to help orbit insertion maneuvers. Attitude knowledge is provided by star trackers and gyros The thermal control system consists of ammonia-based heat pipes and louvers, and requires roughly 200 W at 3 AU. Communications are in X-band for both uplink and downlink, through the body-fixed high and medium gain antennas and a low gain omnidirectional antenna, utilizing a 100 W traveling wave tube amplifier. The command and data handling system utilizes a RAD6000 processor, 8 Gb mass memory, and a Mil-Std-1553B data bus. Uplink data rates range from 7.8 b/s to 2.0 kb/s and downlink rates from 10 b/s to 124 kb/s.

Mission Profile

Launch from Cape Canaveral on a Delta 2 (7925-H) took place on 27 September at 11:34 UT (7:34 a.m.. EDT). Transfer into a trajectory towards the asteroid belt took place approximately 1 hour later. After a four year heliocentric cruise including a Mars flyby to within 542 km of the surface and gravity assist on 18 February 2009 at 00:27:58 UT. Dawn reached Vesta on 16 July 2011 and went into orbit. Dawn spiraled down to a high survey orbit at 2750 km altitude with a period of 69 hours on 2 August, followed by a 12.3 hour mapping orbit at 680 km on 27 September and then a lower (210 km, 4.3 hour) mapping orbit on 8 December. Dawn departed Vesta on 5 September 2012 at 06:26 UT and entered initial orbit around Ceres on 6 March 2015 at 12:29 UT. It reshaped the orbit to its first science orbit, circular with an altitude of 13500 km, reaching this on April 23. It is now spiraling down into lower orbits, and finally to a 375 km altitude circular science orbit, achieving this in December of 2015. The end of the primary mission takes place in June 2016. After the end of the mission Dawn will remain in orbit around Ceres. The final orbit will be stable with a lifetime of several hundred years. The hydrazine thrusters were used for orbit capture.

The total cost for the mission is estimated to be $446 million.

Alternate Names

  • 32249

Facts in Brief

Launch Date: 2007-09-27
Launch Vehicle: Delta II 7925
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral, United States
Mass: 725.0 kg

Funding Agency

  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (United States)


  • Planetary Science

Additional Information

Questions or comments about this spacecraft can be directed to: Dr. David R. Williams.



NameRoleOriginal AffiliationE-mail
Dr. Christopher T. RussellMission Principal InvestigatorUniversity of California, Los

Selected References

Russell, C. T., et al., Dawn: A journey in space and time, Planet. Space Sci., 52, No. 5-6, 465-489, May 2004.

Rayman, M. D., et al., Dawn: A mission in development for exploration of main belt asteroids Vesta and Ceres, Acta Astronaut., 58, No. 11, 605-616, June 2006.

Dawn completes primary mission - NASA Press Release, 30 June 2016
NASA Dawn spacecraft reveals secrets of large asteroid - NASA Press Release, 10 May 2012
NASA's Dawn spacecraft enters orbit around asteroid Vesta - NASA Press Release, 16 July 2011
Dawn spacecraft successfully launched - NASA Press Release, 27 September 2007
Dawn launch rescheduled to September - NASA Press Release, 7 July 2007
Dawn launch briefing - NASA Press Release, 20 June 2007
Dawn chosen as Discovery mission - NASA Press Release, 21 December 2001

Asteroids Page
Asteroid Fact Sheet

Dawn Website
Dawn Mission Page (NASA)

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