Methow Valley News file photo Tom McCord

Methow Valley News file photo

Tom McCord

By Ann McCreary

An international gathering of scientists involved in NASA’s Dawn Space Mission will convene at Sun Mountain Lodge next week, and two leaders of the space mission will give a public presentation about the spacecraft and its discoveries.

The free lecture at 7 p.m. at Sun Mountain Lodge will feature Tom McCord, director of the Bear Fight Institute, located near Winthrop. A founding member of the Dawn Mission team, McCord will speak about the science behind the Dawn mission and the exciting new knowledge it has provided.

Marc Rayman, chief engineer and Dawn Mission director, will talk about the spacecraft, instruments and operations. Rayman works at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Launched in 2007, the Dawn spacecraft has traveled 3.1 billion miles to orbit and study the two most massive objects in the asteroid belt between Maris and Jupiter.

Dawn arrived at its first destination, a massive asteroid called Vesta, in July 2011. After orbiting Vesta for more than a year, Dawn continued on to Ceres, a dwarf planet about 310 million miles from Earth, where the spacecraft is currently in low altitude orbit, about 320 miles above the planet surface, according to NASA.

Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial objects. At each target, Dawn takes color photographs, maps the mineral and elemental composition of the planet, measures the gravity field, and searches for moons.

The information gathered by Dawn will shed light on the formation of our solar system by helping scientists understand the processes and materials that produced planets and other objects in the solar system.

The mission team meets at least once a year, and about 65 scientists from Italy, France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States will gather at Sun Mountain Lodge on June 1 for a three-day meeting, said McCord.

“This is a particularly important meeting because we are close to completing our study of Ceres. We’re in a very active period right now,” McCord said. “It is the last meeting of our current mission.”

The primary mission is scheduled to end next month, but McCord said scientists have submitted proposals to NASA for some additional work for Dawn.

“We’re hoping to go on,” he said. “The spacecraft is still operating and we still have fuel.”

McCord’s involvement in the Dawn Mission began more than 20 years ago, with the initial conception of the mission.

“These missions run a significant portions of a person’s career,” said McCord, who has been involved in 10 NASA space missions.

In its low orbit over Ceres, Dawn is now closer to the dwarf planet than the space station is to Earth, he said. Among other things, Dawn may shed light on what is creating bright, white spots in a crater on the surface of Ceres that appeared in photographs taken by the spacecraft.

“Most of us think they are salt deposits,” McCord said.

As part of most mission team meetings, McCord said, scientists share knowledge in a public lecture. Thursday’s presentation will provide information geared to a general audience.

“I will give context — where we are where we are going, what is involved. I’ll talk about the science and new knowledge, what we have learned and why it is important,” he said.

Rayman “will describe the spacecraft, the intricacies and planning of the mission,” McCord said.