Farewell to Dawn, the space mission at the boundary of the solar system
After 11 years of intense activity, the mission of NASA Dawn spacecraft, with Italy’s important contribution through ASI-Italian Space Agency and INAF-National Institute for Astrophysics, has come to an end.
Launched on 27 September 2007 from Cape Canaveral, Dawn has been the only spacecraft to orbit around two distinct celestial bodies in the deep space: Vesta asteroid and Ceres nanoplanet, the study of which has provided a number of indications about the formation of the Solar System. During the long journey made to reach its targets, Dawn has also made a flyby on Mars.
The Dawn spacecraft has taken many Italian technologies onboard, including the VIR-Visual and Infrared Spectrometer provided by ASI-Italian Space Agency and developed by Leonardo-Finmeccanica under the scientific leadership of INAF-National Institute for Astrophysics. During the Dawn mission, VIR sent more than 11 million images and 90 GB of data to the Earth, thus strongly contributing to the accurate study of the characteristics and history of Vesta and Ceres.
By using the data from the VIR instrument, an international team of researchers coordinated by Maria Cristina De Sanctis from INAF revealed traces of organic material on the surface of Ceres nano planet: a discovery that has deserved to be mentioned in the prestigious journal Science.
“Participation to the Dawn programme has been a great success for ASI and for the entire Italian scientific community involved in the study of minor bodies of the Solar System” said Eleonora Ammannito, scientific head of the Dawn mission for the Italian Space Agency. “Confirmation of the link between some types of meteorites and Vesta and the identification of water ice on the surface of Ceres are only some of the discoveries made by Dawn for which the Italian instrument VIR has played a crucial role” concluded Ammannito.
The observations made on Ceres planet have also provided a solid background to the idea that this planet once hosted a large ocean. “With the Dawn mission coming to an end, a stage of exploration is completed, but a new phase will start, with Ceres being one of the most interesting targets in terms of research of life outside the terrestrial environment” said Cristina De Sanctis, INAF researcher and scientific lead of VIR. “Moreover, I am pleased to highlight that the Italian instrument has completed the mission while working perfectly” said the researcher.