Washington: NASA has approved a second extension of the Dawn mission at Ceres, allowing the spacecraft to get a closer look at the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
During this extension, the spacecraft will descend to lower altitudes than ever before at the dwarf planet, which it has been orbiting since March 2015.
The spacecraft will continue at Ceres for the remainder of its science investigation and will remain in a stable orbit indefinitely after its fuel runs out.
A priority of the second Ceres mission extension is collecting data with Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, which measures the number and energy of gamma rays and neutrons.
This information is important for understanding the composition of Ceres’ uppermost layer and how much ice it contains.
The spacecraft also will take visible-light images of Ceres’ surface geology with its camera, as well as measurements of Ceres mineralogy with its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer.
Building on Dawn’s findings, researchers have hypothesised that water vapour may be produced in part from energetic particles from the Sun interacting with ice in Ceres’ shallow surface.
Mission planners estimate the spacecraft can continue operating until the second half of 2018.
Dawn is the only mission ever to orbit two extraterrestrial targets. It orbited giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months from 2011 to 2012, then continued on to Ceres, where it has been in orbit since March 2015.