Dawn Mission & Spacecraft

NASA names each of the mission groups under specifically designed mission names.

The Dawn mission was part of NASA’s “Discovery Program,” for the purpose of examining the two biggest bodies in the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres.

These two worlds were designated because they offer a view of the early solar system, and they are diversely different. Ceres is a dwarf planet that is icy, while Vesta is rocky.

Each one took a completely different evolutionary path and learning about this helps scientists know more about our own planet.

Dawn launched in 2007 to take a 4.3 billion mi (6.9 billion km) journey. It was propelled by ion engines and became the mission that accomplished a lot of “firsts”.

Dawn arrived at its first destination, Vesta, in 2011. Vesta is the second largest body in the main asteroid belt.

Dawn became the first spacecraft to orbit a body in the area between Jupiter and Mars.2015 became the year that Dawn orbited the dwarf planet Ceres.

It is the largest world within the asteroid belt and the Dawn mission became the first to not only visit Ceres, but enter an orbit around two different destinations.

Studying both of these objects in the asteroid belt, Dawn sent back information that showed the importance of location for the way objects evolve and form within the solar system.

Dawn also found that dwarf planets might have been able to have oceans over larger portions of their history, and possibly still do.

The information that Dawn sent back to the scientists on Earth involved four science experiments that could compare both of these objects and show how they evolved in different ways.

Important Aspects of the Dawn Mission:

  • Dawn was the first spacecraft sent into the solar system for the purpose of orbiting two extraterrestrial destinations.
  • Once Dawn arrived at Vesta, it officially became the first spacecraft that would be in orbit around a main asteroid belt object.
  • Once Dawn arrived at Ceres, it became the first spacecraft that would orbit a dwarf planet.
  • Information sent back from Dawn indicated how important location was in the way the early solar system evolved and organized.
  • The data gathered by Dawn demonstrated that icy moons aren’t the only objects that could have hosted oceans during their evolution and that dwarf planets may have had a history then, and possibly still do.
  • Dawn located “organics” on Ceres, which has prompted scientists to want to know more.
  • Dawn’s ion engines broke several exploration records.
  • The Star Wars movie used far-ranging “TIE” fighters; abbreviated for “twin ion engine.”
  • Scientists had their opinions changed when Dawn discovered that Vesta was more varied than previously thought.
  • When exploring Ceres, Dawn found that it was very recently geologically active.
  • Dawn was a workhorse spacecraft, sending data from Ceres all the way until it ran out of fuel.
  • Record-breaking use of solar-electric propulsion: 25,700 mph, which was 2.7x any prior spacecraft and nearly equal to the velocity provided by Dawn’s Delta launch vehicle
  • Active powered flight: 6 years
  • Dawn validated that not just icy moons, but also dwarf planets could have oceans.
  • Dawn took over 95,000 images
  • During the lifetime of the spacecraft, Dawn had 51,385 hours of ion engine thrusting
  • Dawn collected 167+ GB of science data.
  • Dawn traveled 4.3 billion miles since the start of the launch.

Dawn made use of the same instruments to study both Vesta and Ceres, revealing new insights into the diversity of both.

The spacecraft orbited and accomplished exploration of protoplanet Vesta from 2011-2012.

Dawn then moved to orbit the dwarf planet of Ceres until 2015. As the first spacecraft to orbit any object in the main asteroid belt Dawn sent back an incredible amount of data.

Mission Findings

  • Analysis of Vesta resulted in finding out that it is the parent of the HED meteorites (howardites, eucrites, and diogenites), which Dawn made the connection to the large south polar basin of Vesta.
  • Dawn found carbon rich and hydrated material on Vesta’s surface, which was not expected in original telescopic observations.
  • Analysis of Ceres found that the dwarf planet was an ocean world where ammonia and liquid water reacted with silicate rocks.

Key Mission Events

  • 2007 — Launch (September)
  • 2009 — Mars Gravity Assist (February)
  • 2011 — Vesta Arrival (July)
  • 2012 — Vesta Departure (September)
  • 2015 — Ceres Arrival (March)
  • 2016 — End of prime mission (June)
  • 2016 — Start of first extension (July)
  • 2017 — Start of second extension (November)
  • 2018 — End of spacecraft mission

NASA’s List of Partner organizations/companies involved with Dawn:

  • The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages Dawn’s mission to Vesta and Ceres for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
  • Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
  • UCLA was responsible for Dawn’s prime mission science. JPL is responsible for Dawn’s extended mission science.
  • Northrop Grumman in Dulles, Virginia designed and built the spacecraft.
  • JPL is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena.
  • The Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany, provided the framing cameras with significant contributions by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research, Berlin, and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering, Braunschweig.
  • The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer was funded and coordinated by the Italian Space Agency and built by SELEX ES, with the scientific leadership of the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology, Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, Italy, and is operated by the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology, Rome, Italy.
  • The gamma ray and neutron detector was built by Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, and is operated by the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona.


  • What two celestial bodies were the focus of Dawn’s primary mission:
    Vesta and Ceres
  • What was one of the major discoveries that Dawn found out?
    location of an object in space can affect its evolution
  • How many years was Dawn in active powered flight?
    6 years
  • How many images did Dawn take over the life of the mission?
  • What 2 discoveries on Ceres surprised scientists?
    recent geological activity, organics
  • What did Dawn do that no other spacecraft had previously done?
    sent out to explore 2 different celestial bodies