The little spacecraft that could may be moving its search for alien life on asteroids to yet another space rock. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, currently orbiting Ceres where it has been sending back fabulous photos of huge craters and mysterious (well, not mysterious any more) lights but no alien life forms, may get new flying orders soon to move on to its third asteroid. In a bizarre twist, Dawn was saved from crashing into Ceres for a dirty reason.
Dawn was launched in September 2007 and entered into the orbit of Vesta in July 2011. After 14 months of sending back data and photographs, it moved on to Ceres in March 2015 and has kept alien hunters in suspense with ever-improving photos of mysterious lights (it even held a contest to guess what was causing them) that were once thought to be a form of Epsom salts (hydrated magnesium sulfates) but may actually be reflections off of plumes of evaporating gas from a yet unidentified source.
Dawn’s mission at Ceres was supposed to end in July 2016 with either a perpetual orbit around Ceres or a crash-and-burn into its surface, but NASA regulations now prohibit that because Dawn was not sterilized pre-launch and would contaminate the asteroid. Fortunately, the electric-powered spacecraft still has some xenon left in its ion thruster – enough to propel it to a record-breaking third asteroid and another quest to find life.
Which asteroid is yet another NASA mystery at this point, since neither the agency nor Dawn’s principal investigator Chris Russell will say anything more than this:
As long as the mission extension has not been approved by NASA, I’m not going to tell you which asteroid we plan to visit.
Could it be … Pallas? 2 Pallas is the largest asteroid (550 km (340 miles) in diameter) in the Pallas group of asteroids. It’s highly-inclined orbit may make it difficult to get to. A more interesting choice might be 10 Hygiea, a little smaller (around 500 km (310 miles) in diameter) and mysteriously dark due to a possible carbon surface.
Maybe NASA should hold a contest to pick Dawn’s next destination. Then again, the winner might be Roidy McAsteroidyface.