NASA scientists Kristina Larson and Jose Wise were kind enough to answer the questions of a few young Costa Rican dreamers.
Anyone can be amazed by looking at the stars, by the idea of an infinite space and distant planets on far away galaxies. For some people, this awe has turn into a life mission, and exploring the mysteries of space into everyday work. Such is the case for the scientist and engineers working on the NASA’s Dawn Project.
The Dawn Project is a low budget initiative with the big goal of exploring our solar system. They want to achieve something that had never been done before, exploring two worlds in only one mission. Their objectives are the two biggest bodies on the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter: the giant protoplanet Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres.
The Success of the Dawn ProjectOne of the mysterious light spots on Ceres.
The Dawn spacecraft left Earth on September of 2007, equipped with powerful cameras, star trackers, infrared spectrometers and three ion thrusters. This propulsion engine provides a very small amount of acceleration — applying about the same pressure as does the weight of a piece of paper in your hand. It uses only 3 milligrams of fuel per second. This engine allows the spacecraft to accelerate for very long periods of time without having to carry big amounts of fuel. Also the fuel used by the ion thrusters, xenon, is very affordable.
After 8 years of cruising the solar system, the Dawn Project has had an amazing success. It has already orbited Vesta, and right now is orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres taking amazing photographs and videos of both worlds. Through the project, scientists have discovered a peak of 25 kilometers in Vesta and some strange bright spots of unknown origin on Ceres. By visiting the Dawn Project website you can view full maps of both bodies on great quality, also you can cast your vote on the origin of the mysterious bright spot on Ceres.
These detailed photos have inspired people all around the world; we are once more dreaming of space travel and distant planets. For young and old, there is a new reason to look up to the stars as we learn more of them each day.
Q&A with Dawn Scientists
These new discoveries have also spurred the imagination of young Costa Rican students that have reached out to the Dawn Project scientists to satisfy their curiosity. What better way to inspire and educate than by reaching out to the people we admire? The primary goal of this school is to allow children to dream big. Who knows if perhaps one of them will become the next Franklin Chang?
The following is a Q&A between the students eager to learn about space exploration and the scientists that are making it happen.
If humans were sent to Ceres what is the fastest travel time to get there? (Edwin Emery)
[dropcap]A:[/dropcap] This is one of the reasons that there is no talk about establishing a manned station on Ceres. Getting there in a reasonable time is prohibitively expensive. Dawn utilized ion propulsion to make the mission affordable. As an example, the ion engine would accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 4 days. It has a very gentle thrust, but it is consistent. The engine is very efficient so that we only use a little fuel for our trip, but the payback is that it takes a very long time to get there.
How long did it take to get the Dawn Program going from the very beginning and how many people participated in it? (Carolina Peña)
[dropcap]A:[/dropcap] The Dawn Mission was proposed to NASA earlier, and was not chosen because the ion propulsion engine had not been tested in space. Dawn is a part of the NASA Discovery Program, and thus must be a low cost mission with high probability for scientific return. Then Deep Space 1 was launched in 1998, and it successfully used ion propulsion so that ion propulsion developed what NASA calls “heritage” (i.e. successful technology that can be counted on to perform).
The [Dawn] spaceship was built and launched in 2007. The scientists and engineers involved have spent 20 to 40 years of their lives preparing to participate in a mission like this. I cannot give you a number since the team is constantly fluctuating. Currently on the list is 123 from the U.S., Germany and Italy. This does not count the technicians, engineers, etc. that built the spacecraft.
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What benefits will we have with the Dawn mission and what is your favorite part about working for NASA? (Valeria Salazar Jiménez)
[dropcap]A:[/dropcap] Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies, as well as the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet. Dawn uses a unique form of propulsion: ion propulsion. It is over 10 times as efficient as standard chemical propulsion. Dawn used its framing camera, visible and infrared spectrometer, and gamma ray and neutron detector at Vesta to map the topography and composition, and will be doing the same at Ceres. Understanding how these two proto-planets formed gives us clues into the formation of our solar system.
My favorite part is seeing images taken by the spacecraft when they first are downloaded to Earth. I have experienced this with Dawn, with both images of Vesta and Ceres, as well as when I worked on the Opportunity rover. Every day we would see the new images taken the previous day of Mars. It’s so exciting to think that these spacecraft that we build on Earth are traveling far into our solar system and sending us back these current images of alien planets. You never know what you’re going to see when you come to work and I absolutely love that!
What made you interested to join this type of project and how is the work environment and how far do you think space exploration will have advanced by 2025? (Anthony Callow-Monge)
[dropcap]A:[/dropcap] I have always loved all things space, whether it was planetary science discoveries or sci-fi shows like Stargate SG-1. This motivated me to pursue an internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and join the Dawn project. The work environment is awesome! JPL is a branch of NASA, so it is a nonprofit. This provides a very different atmosphere from a for-profit company. Everyone is so passionate about the space exploration that we do and everyone is working towards that common goal. As an intern, members of Dawn really took the time to teach me space operations and provided a great learning environment.
The sky’s the limit! Wait — actually there is no limit in space, haha. Upcoming missions include the Europa Clipper Mission and Mars 2020 (re-fly of MSL). Other projects in the works are the Asteroid Redirect Mission and even possibly a Mars return mission! By 2025 we should also be much further down the road in knowing how to take humans farther than the moon. Exciting times![/td_text_with_title]