Costa Rican students receive recognition from NASA's Dawn mission

Over the past few months, NASA's historic Dawn space mission caught the imagination of a group of young Costa Rican English students in the town of Santa Ana, located near Costa Rica's capital city, San Jose. In my capacity as their English teacher I introduced some of my most science oriented students to the Dawn project and they began their own research on the mission. During this process the idea was suggested to contact the Dawn team directly to ask them a few questions about scientific aspects of the project as well as guidance on career paths. What better way to learn about a project than from the people working on it?

What follows is part of the Q&A session between Costa Rican students and Dawn Flight Engineer, Kristina Larson, and Dawn Education Communications Manager, Joe Wise. Thanks very much to Kristina and Joe for taking the time from their busy schedules to correspond with them.

Questions for Kristina Larson
From Valeria Salazar Jiménez

Q: What benefits will we have with the Dawn mission and what is your favourite part about working for NASA?

A: 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 & 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 downlinked 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!

From Anthony Callow-Monge

Q: 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?

A: 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 JPL and join the Dawn project. The work environment is awesome! JPL is a branch of NASA, so it is not for profit. 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 Retrieval Mission and even possibly a Mars return mission! By 2025 we should also be much farther down the road in knowing how to take humans farther than the moon. Exciting times!

Questions for Joe Wise:
From Edwin Emery

Q: If humans were sent to Ceres what is the fastest travel time to get there?

A: 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 - 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.

From Carolina Peña

Q: How long did it take to get the Dawn program going from the very beginning and how many people participated in it?

A: 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 Mission 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 spaceship was built and launched in 2007.The scientists and engineers involved have spent 20 - 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 US, Germany, and Italy. This does not count the technicians, engineers, etc. that built the spacecraft.

No one should be surprised if more Costa Ricans in the near future will assume important roles in the aerospace industry and NASA.

Through the visionary work of the Ad Astra Rocket Company and the Central American Aerospace Association ( ACAE) Costa Rica's involvement with the aerospace industry is steadily growing. Costa Rica is the birthplace of NASA Hall of Fame astronaut Dr. Franklin Chang ( who shares the record for number of space flights with 7) and one of NASA's top engineers Sandra Cauffman, who is the Deputy Systems Program Director for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) Program.