Could NASA’s asteroid mission visit a third world?

The Dawn probe is currently in orbit around Ceres after a visit to Vesta. Now, its researchers want to visit a third world to finish out the mission.
By | Published: April 25, 2016 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
NASA’s Dawn mission has yielded some impressive results thus far, and it isn’t over yet. After launching in 2007, the probe orbited the asteroid Vesta for a year in 2011 before moving on to the dwarf planet Ceres. Now, according to a report in New Scientist, the team is looking toward an unprecedented feat: orbiting a third world.

The Dawn probe is outfitted with ion thrusters that allow it to exit and enter asteroid orbits. This is how it became the first probe ever to orbit two different bodies. (Previous missions like Voyager 2 involved flybys rather than orbits.) There’s a limited amount of fuel left in the probe, but the team believes it’s enough to visit one last asteroid body.

Part of the problem with a Ceres landing is that the probe wasn’t sterilized prior to launch, and since then, the picture of Ceres as a past or present “ocean world” has emerged, so an end-of-mission needs to make sure the probe can’t contaminate the small world.

The potential target hasn’t been announced yet, as it still awaits approval by NASA. Principal investigator Chris Russell said he hopes the decision doesn’t take months. In the meantime, though, there’s still plenty to learn from Ceres, including figuring out what caused a series of bright salt deposits across the surface of the dwarf planet.