In 1996, science writer John Horgan published a book called The End of Science in which he claimed that we had learned all we could know about the natural world. And in 2008, Wired magazine devoted an issue to, you guessed it, “The End of Science.” Snappy, grandiose titles may sell copy, but it’s also the case that each time someone or other declares the end of something massive—science, history, war, and periodically, the world–we can look back and be astonished at the hubris. It now seems that there are frontiers we are just beginning to explore, and they are the frontiers of our evolutionary beginnings. While biophysicists like Peter Hoffmann chart the boundaries between life and nonlife at the molecular level, NASA scientists explore the outer reaches to discover what Leonard Nimoy, narrator of the video above, calls “the very beginning of us.”
It’s a little wonky at times, but the short film above is nonetheless a fascinating overview of NASA’s Dawn mission, a spacecraft designed to collect data from the asteroid belt. The ship itself is a marvel. Outfitted with massive solar panel wings that can power it for years, Dawn converts xenon gas into plasma, which it propels from its engine at speeds up to 78,000 miles per hour (or 21 miles per second) for maximum acceleration.
In fact, Dawn is the fastest ship NASA has ever launched. Even at top speeds, Dawn required four years to reach its first stop, the asteroid Vesta, the brightest asteroid in the solar system and the only one visible to the naked eye. Departing Earth in 2007, the ship reached Vesta in July of 2011 and departed last September for the asteroid Ceres, which it will reach in February of 2015.
These two asteroids are part of what is called the “protoplanetary disk,” a once-chaotic ring of dust and gas that began to coalesce into our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago. One NASA scientist above describes the asteroid belt as the “boneyard” of deep space—remains from the earliest epochs of time. Dawn’s mission isn’t just a foray to uncharted space; it’s also a journey billions years into the past, into the origins of our solar system.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician. He recently completed a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.
Ceres has been reclassified as a dwarf planet a few years ago.