COD professor on NASA’s Dawn mission: “That’s why we do science.”

Brian McKenna, Reporter

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College of DuPage astronomy Professor Joe Dal Santo spreads his passion for the stars to the public through various discussions and his own YouTube channel. On Saturday, he introduced a full room of students and community members to the wonders of NASA’s “revolutionary mission” Dawn.

Part of NASA’s Discovery Program–which was described as a series of “low cost missions” by Dal Santo, Dawn was sent to photograph two “bodies” inside the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, later named Vesta and Ceres.

Vesta and Ceres contain each of their own unique traits. The asteroid Vesta mysteriously uncovered three enormous craters nicknamed “Vesta’s Snowman” which range approximately 60 kilometers in diameter.

While Ceres, which fits the qualifications of a dwarf planet contains signs of water vapor and the possibility of an atmosphere. Less than half the size of Pluto, astronomers are still intrigued. In a report on Dawn’s findings, NASA stated “while Ceres might not have living things today, there could be signs it harbored life in the past.”

The unmanned aircraft left in Sep. 2007 to observe Vesta and Ceres through orbital photography. From Earth, Vesta and Ceres only appeared to be specs light and left a millenia of questions for astronomers who spotted them.

Dal Santo emphasized the importance of the two objects, calling them “crucial roles in understanding the solar system” and that the discovery and observations made because of Dawn have “filled in a gap” in the astronomy world.

Using a projection process called “ion propulsion,” Dawn has a very low propellant rate. Basically, “it’s not going anywhere very fast” Dal Santo explained after revealing that the spacecraft arrived at Vesta in July 2011.

Dal Santo described the mission as a waiting game, saying that “you have to be patient,” but the results have certainly made up for the wait.

Astonishingly, scientists have also discovered a broken piece of meteorite that matches Vesta’s makeup–meaning that we can now examine the physical structure up close, not limited only to photographs.

After a year of photographing Vesta, Dawn made its way to Ceres–the larger of the two, where it continues to observe the dwarf planet today.

Dawn has collected over 132 GB of data–including 69,000 images–which can be found through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s website, and has traveled 3.5 billion miles in the 10 years it has been spacebound.

According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s article “Dawn Mission Celebrates 10 Years in Space” published on Sep. 27, 2017, the Dawn aircraft “remains healthy” after all these years. Mission engineer and chief director Marc Rayman emphasized Dawn’s impact saying it “continues to be a mission for everyone who yearns for new knowledge.”

Dal Santo captured the entire seminar with one sentence, “That’s why we do science–for the unexpected things.” With only 4 percent of space visible from Earth, Dawn has shed an exceptionally promising light on the future of the unknown world above us.

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