The Dawn mission to asteroids Ceres and Vesta is back on!
Last month, NASA canceled the mission due to “technical issues and cost overruns”. This happened amidst a flurry of other science mission delays and outright cancellations. Needless to say, this caused quite a bit of anger in the scientific community, not the least of which was coming from the Europeans, who had invested money and time in the mission, and who had not been consulted by NASA before the decision was made to cancel it.
A Co-Investigator of Dawn, Mark Sykes, went so far as to write a letter to Congress pleading Dawn’s case. Perhaps that helped; a few days later an official appeal was filed to NASA, and it was reported that NASA was reconsidering the cancellation.
Today, in a telephone press conference, NASA announced that the Dawn mission is being reinstated. The launch is planned for the summer of 2007, perhaps June-July, arriving at Vesta in 2011 and moving on to Ceres in 2015.
There was an independent assessment team that looked over the decision to cancel Dawn. There were some issues with the propulsion and other spacecraft systems, as well of course with funding. They were able to review these issues, and decided that the spacecraft team was handling these problems sufficiently, and that the mission could go forward.
The reinstatement resulted from a review process that is part of new management procedures established by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. The process is intended to help ensure open debate and thorough evaluation of major decisions regarding space exploration and agency operations.
“We revisited a number of technical and financial challenges and the work being done to address them,” said NASA Associate Administrator Rex Geveden, who chaired the review panel. “Our review determined the project team has made substantive progress on many of this mission’s technical issues, and, in the end, we have confidence the mission will succeed.”
The people at NASA on the telecon were careful to say that this shows the strength of the appeal process and how missions can be reviewed – and I agree – but that still asks the question: why was the mission canceled in the first place, if upon review everything looks okay? It sounds like communication between the NASA decision-makers and the mission project teams needs to be improved. This whole ordeal caused a lot of grief in the scientific and international community, especially the manner in which it was canceled. I hope that the people involved can learn from what happened here, and avoid this sort of thing in the future. Given how many other missions have been on or may yet still be on the chopping block, we might very well find out. No other missions, however, have as yet started an appeal process.
Personally, I think Dawn is an awesome mission and I’m thrilled it’s back in the game. We know quite a bit about the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, but we’ve never had a dedicated mission to see any close up, get good images, and determine the surface composition. The science is fascinating and important– and don’t forget, the Earth is occasionally hit by asteroids, and so more knowledge about them translates directly into better information on how to stop one if it’s on its way in. Plus, the mission has an advanced propulsion system called an ion drive, which uses a powerful electric field to fling ionized atoms out its back end, propelling the spacecraft forward. It’s extremely cool technology, since it’s a lot more efficient than chemical rockets, and can achieve far higher velocities.
I am very happy NASA changed its mind – cancelling Dawn was a mistake, pure and simple, and this successful appeal bodes well for the future. NASA has to make some tough decisions about where to spend its relatively small budget, which is made worse by new pressures to design and build the new Crew Exploration Vehicle, and to eventually go back to the Moon. These are all important ventures, but they must not come at the expense of the science. Exploration and science are two sides of the same coin, and one cannot be supported by gutting the other.’