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In a long and very detailed post, the chief engineer and mission director of Dawn gives us a very detailed update on the successful state of the spacecraft’s mission.
Not only does he describe what has been gathered at Ceres since the spacecraft arrived a year ago, he gives us this crucial information about the state of this paradigm-shattering ion engine spacecraft, the first to travel to two different objects in the solar system:
Dawn has faced many challenges in its unique voyage in the forbidding depths of space, but it has surmounted all of them. It has even overcome the dire threat posed by the loss of two reaction wheels (the second failure occurring in orbit around Vesta 3.5 years and 1.3 billion miles, or 2.0 billion kilometers, ago). With only two operable reaction wheels (and those no longer trustworthy), the ship’s remaining lifetime is very limited.
A year ago, the team couldn’t count on Dawn even having enough hydrazine to last beyond next month. But the creative methods of conserving that precious resource have proved to be quite efficacious, and the reliable explorer still has enough hydrazine to continue to return bonus data for a while longer. Now it seems highly likely that the spacecraft will keep functioning through the scheduled end of its primary mission on June 30, 2016.
NASA may choose to continue the mission even after that. Such decisions are difficult, as there is literally an entire universe full of interesting subjects to study, but resources are more limited. In any case, even if NASA extended the mission, and even if the two wheels operated without faltering, and even if the intensive campaign of investigating Ceres executed flawlessly, losing not an ounce (or even a gram) of hydrazine to the kinds of glitches that can occur in such a complex undertaking, the hydrazine would be exhausted early in 2017. Clearly an earlier termination remains quite possible.
Dawn has proven the value of ion engines. I would expect to see them used many more times in the future, especially missions heading to low gravity environments.