Scientists have known for about a month that Dawn was nearly out of hydrazine, a fuel that kept the spacecraft's antennae oriented toward Earth and helped turn its solar panels to the sun to recharge.
After the flight team eliminated other possible causes for the missed communications, mission managers concluded that the spacecraft finally ran out of hydrazine, the fuel that enables the spacecraft to control its pointing. Associate administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen from the NASA science mission directorate in Washington, hailed Dawn's "incredible technical achievements" and "vital science". Dawn visited Vesta and Ceres, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit two deep-space destinations.
NASA has lost a second spacecraft this week, ending a fruitful mission in the asteroid belt. "It's hard to say goodbye to this awesome spaceship, but it's time", said Marc Rayman, Mission Director and Chief Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Because of the life-on-Ceres question, NASA made a decision to keep Dawn spinning in orbit rather than sending the probe down to crash onto the dwarf planet's pockmarked surface.
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"The demands we put on Dawn were tremendous, but it met the challenge every time".
The space agency also says Dawn's observations, of the two large asteroid belt objects, support a concept that dwarf planets could have held oceans over a substantial part of their history - and perhaps still do.
Zurbuchen said the scientific learning from Dawn's mission will go on.
Dawn produced a complete map of the surface of Ceres and discovered ice volcanoes. In addition to returning a carbon-rich asteroid sample and studying Bennu's surface and composition, NASA's OSIRIS-REx will also look into how sunlight affects its orbit and document its regolith, the layer of material covering its surface. JPL is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. "Ceres and Vesta are important to the study of distant planetary systems, too, as they provide a glimpse of the conditions that may exist around young stars", Raymond said. The engineers have more than 99 percent confidence the orbit will last for at least 50 years, NASA stated on its website.