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The Forward Unto Dawn was a UNSC frigate-class starship captained by Commander Miranda Keyes, leading the Human forces that penetrated the slipspace portal in Africa to the Forerunner installation known as the Ark, in order to prevent the Covenant leader, the Prophet of Truth, from committing galactic genocide. Notable crew members included Sergeant Major Avery Johnson and Master Chief Petty Officer John-117.
Although Commander Keyes and Sergeant Johnson, among others, were killed in action during the mission, the Prophet of Truth was successfully prevented from activating the Halo Array, ending the Human-Covenant War once and for all. The Dawn, unmanned, remained behind while all other Human forces and their Sangheili allies retreated through the portal back to Earth. The Dawn was to serve as a quick means of escape for the Master Chief, the Arbiter, and the AI Cortana, after they activated the spare Halo ring on the Ark in order to destroy a Flood infestation. However, due to the unfinished nature of the spare Halo, activating it would lead to a chain reaction that would destroy the Ark, and thus the portal.
Although the three survivors successfully activated the ring, escaped to the Dawn, and took off, only the front half of the ship made it through the slipspace portal back to Earth before it collapsed, cutting it in two and rendering both sides more or less useless. The front half crashed into an ocean on Earth, and UNSC personnel rescued the Arbiter from the wreckage; the rear half was assumed to have been destroyed in the explosion of the Ark, and Cortana and the Master Chief along with it, with the UNSC officially listing the Chief as MIA, the closest a Spartan could come to being listed as dead. In reality, the rear half of the Dawn was left adrift in unknown space, with Cortana and the Chief very much alive on board. As Halo 3's campaign ends, the Master Chief puts himself into cryo-hibernation in order to survive the years it will take before someone picks up their distress beacon.
Although no solid details are known at this time, the announcement trailer for Halo 4 reveals that the game will take place after Halo 3, and pick up with the Chief being revived in order to deal with a mysterious mechanical construct the size of a planet, previously glimpsed in an additional scene featured in the ending cutscene of Halo 3 if the game is completed on Legendary difficulty.