July 7, 2011 Mission managers for NASA's Dawn spacecraft are studying the spacecraft's ion propulsion system after Dawn experienced a loss of thrust on June 27. Dawn team members were able to trace the episode to an electronic circuit in the spacecraft's digital control and interface unit, a subsystem that houses the circuit and a computer that provides the "brains" to Dawn's ion propulsion system. That circuit appeared to lose an electronic signal. As a result, the valves controlling the flow of xenon fuel did not open properly. Dawn automatically put itself into a more basic configuration known as "safe-communications" mode, where the spacecraft stopped some activities and turned its high-gain antenna to Earth.
Engineers were able to return the spacecraft to a normal configuration and restart the spacecraft's thrusting on June 30 by switching to a second digital control and interface unit with equivalent capabilities. One set of images for navigation purposes was not obtained on June 28 because the spacecraft was in safe-communications mode, and one other set, on July 6, was not obtained to allow the spacecraft to spend the time thrusting. Other sets of navigation images have been and will be acquired as expected. The ion propulsion system is now functioning normally.
"Dawn is still on track to get into orbit around Vesta, and thanks to the flexibility provided by our use of ion propulsion, the time of orbit capture actually will move earlier by a little less than a day," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission manager. "More importantly, the rest of Dawn's schedule is unaffected, and science collection is expected to begin as scheduled in early August."
In an unrelated event, the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer on Dawn reset itself on June 29. At the time of the reset, the instrument was gathering calibration data during the spacecraft's approach to the giant asteroid Vesta. Some of its planned observations were completed successfully before automatic sensors turned the instrument off.
On June 30, Dawn team members were able to trace the reset to an internal error in the instrument's central processing unit, though they don't yet know why the internal error occurred. By temporarily turning the instrument back on, the Dawn team confirmed that the instrument is otherwise in a normal configuration. They powered the instrument back off, as originally planned for this time. Team members are working to determine when they will turn it back on again.
After arriving at Vesta, Dawn will spend about one year orbiting the asteroid, which is also known as a protoplanet because it is a large body that almost became a planet. Data collected at Vesta will help scientists understand the earliest chapter of our solar system's history.
The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The University of California, Los Angeles, is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Other scientific partners include Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz.; Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany; DLR Institute for Planetary Research, Berlin, Germany; Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, Rome; and the Italian Space Agency, Rome. Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va., designed and built the Dawn spacecraft.
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