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NASA extends the missions of nine spacecraft

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 05, 2016

While we’re on the subject, NASA announced late last week that they are extending the missions of nine spacecraft sprinkled about the solar system. Included are the New Horizon probe, which will wing off to study an object in the Kuiper Belt after doing so well with Pluto and the rover Opportunity, which was slated for a mission lasting just over 90 days but has now spent more than 12 years exploring the surface of Mars.

The Dawn mission to Ceres is another spacecraft whose duration has been extended, beating long odds. Part of the spacecraft’s functionality had not been working for some time, but was recently repaired.

It was a bit unexpected because Dawn is low on fuel. “Less than a year ago, I would have thought it was ridiculous that the spacecraft would even be operating at this point,” said Marc D. Rayman, the chief engineer for the Dawn mission.

The Dawn spacecraft was designed to use four spinning wheels to pivot in different directions. But at its previous destination, the asteroid Vesta, two of the four wheels overheated and failed. At Ceres, the wheels stayed off, and the spacecraft used its thrusters instead to pivot.

In December, Dawn reached its lowest orbit, just 240 miles above Ceres. Dr. Rayman said he and his team had expected Dawn to exhaust its remaining propellant by March.

But they spun up the wheels again. That succeeded, cutting the use of the thrusters. “It all worked out beautifully,” Dr. Rayman said. That left enough fuel to contemplate doing something more.