Press Release

Dawn Spacecraft Captured Into Orbit Around Ceres, The Largest Object in the Main Asteroid Belt

By SpaceRef Editor
March 6, 2015
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Orbital ATK, Inc. (NYSE: OA), a global leader in aerospace and defense technologies, today announced a major milestone in a deep space science mission aimed at uncovering the mysteries of the solar system. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has arrived at and is now orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn, designed and built by Orbital ATK, accomplished this feat with the innovative use of solar electric ion propulsion, the world’s most advanced and efficient space propulsion technology. Ceres, located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is the largest unexplored world of the inner solar system. Dawn, now in its eighth year of a nearly nine-year-long mission, has already advanced human understanding of planetary formation by giant leaps with the data it has returned to date.

“Orbital ATK’s flight-proven technology and extensive experience played key roles in integrating the ion propulsion system provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” said Frank Culbertson, Orbital ATK Space Systems Group president. “This technology is revolutionizing solar system exploration and made Dawn’s historic journey to two planetary bodies possible. We were committed to developing this spacecraft in an innovative way that was reliable and affordable. To see the Dawn flight system enter into this complex science phase fully functional is quite a testament to the design and workmanship.”

Launched in September 2007, Dawn has been traveling toward Ceres since its September 2012 departure from Vesta, the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt and the first destination on this two-stop planetary mission. The spacecraft spent nearly 14 months orbiting and mapping Vesta, returning more than 30,000 images and other measurements about the protoplanet.

Since January, Dawn has returned increasingly sharper images of Ceres, showing a heavily cratered surface with multiple intriguing, bright features. Dawn’s image quality now exceeds the best available from the ground-based W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. In its lowest science orbit around Ceres, Dawn will return images more than 800 times the resolution of Hubble. The images will provide mission scientists with data to understand how Ceres evolved so differently from Vesta.

“This is the world’s first chance to get an up close look at two bodies which date back to the formation of the solar system, but evolved very differently,” said Mike Miller, Orbital ATK vice president, Science and Environmental Programs, Civil and Defense Division. “Ceres is thought to contain substantial water, perhaps up to 27 percent of its mass, a quantity roughly equivalent to the fresh water on Earth. It’s expected to be mostly in the form of ice, but there may also be a liquid subsurface ocean. The Dawn detailed image and compositional data will help us understand this very exciting prospect.”

Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group designed and built Dawn over the course of four-and-a-half years at the company’s facilities in Dulles, Va. Measuring 65 feet in length and weighing nearly 2,700 pounds at launch, Dawn melded features of Orbital ATK’s earth science and commercial communication spacecraft technology.

Dawn’s mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK, Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

About Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK is a global leader in aerospace and defense technologies. The company designs, builds and delivers space, defense and aviation systems for customers around the world, both as a prime contractor and merchant supplier. Its main products include launch vehicles and related propulsion systems; missile products, subsystems and defense electronics; precision weapons, armament systems and ammunition; satellites and associated space components and services; and advanced aerospace structures. Headquartered in Dulles, Virginia, Orbital ATK employs more than 12,000 people in 20 states across the U.S. and in several international locations. For more information, visit

SpaceRef staff editor.