A new day for Dawn!

By Phil Plait | March 27, 2006 1:23 pm

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.

Here is the official statement from NASA:

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.’


Comments (28)

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  1. How To Build a Fireplace | July 11, 2008
  1. Great news indeed. I’m still at a loss to grasp all the underlying bureaucratic chicanery (apparently coupled with poor rationale), but am delighted that the mission’s back on track.

    (BTW: I didn’t pilfer your entry’s title — great minds think alike. ūüėČ )

  2. Leon

    Glad to hear Dawn’s back! A dedicated mission to the largest asteroids is long overdue.

  3. Science?? I don’t need no stinkin’ ‘science’!! I wanna play pro football in the Martian dust, shoot a few hoops in lunar gravity, maybe find out if Noah’s Ark is embedded in one of the maria. Maybe we can even finally locate Osama! Sex in space? Sorry, that would be unnatural.

    All I need is my I.D. and I can get all the answers I need to all the big questions. Let’s put Prof. Behe in charge of the search for extraterrestrial life. He’s the best biologist, ever!


  4. Phil,

    Part of what strikes me about NASA is how very difficult it is to maintain a cohesive long-term strategy in a system of government like ours where funding and vision are at the whim of a changing electorate every four years. It’s one reason I’ve been so happy to see private firms finally taking up the mantle of space exploration — I don’t think we as a nation are well-suited to the enterprise. That we got to the Moon was, I think, more a result of Kennedy’s inspiration living on long after he was gone, we kind of all carried on in his name.

    I don’t see that happening again any time soon. Just look at how often the scope of NASA has changed, even within a given project like the ISS. One year we’re haring off to Mars, the next we’re dumping that for going to the Moon, the ISS is huge, now it’s small, on and on and on …

    Do you think there’s a better strategy for NASA, some way to refine their mission that reflect the political reality we live in? I am thinking that they’re going to have to abandon long-term, incredibly costly missions like the Space Station and moon bases. There’s just not the politicial and financial continuity to see them to completion. It seems to me that they would be better focused on missions in the 4-5 year range that deal with hard, fundamental science. Things like Dawn and solar observatories, missions that provide fundamental tools for scientists to use which in turn enable future private, larger-scale missions. They’d be able to do so much more with the funding they get.

    Anyway, that might be completely off-base, what the heck do I know? I’m curious what you think.

  5. grand_lunar

    Good to see Dawn is back on track. Hope it stays that way.
    I also hope NASA can get a larger budget to support both science missions like this, and get the ISS completed, construct the CEV, ect.
    I know when the shuttle is retired, a large sum will be become available. At least, I hope it works that way.

  6. Merovingian

    I’m really glad to hear this! Dawn sounds like an important mission.

  7. ioresult

    I feel like I can breathe again… a little… for now.

  8. Leon

    grand_lunar says:

    I know when the shuttle is retired, a large sum will be become available. At least, I hope it works that way.

    Actually, I imagine when the Shuttle is retired, the money from that will be dumped into the Completely Expensive Vehicle (CEV).

  9. Folcrom

    For decades I’ve waited patiently for NASA to send a mission to Ceres.
    Hopefully, they will send it and in less than a decade I’ll be able to see the results.

    Touch wood.


  10. P. Edward Murray

    I’m willing to bet that if the administration changes in 2008 that come Jan.2009 there will be some big changes.

  11. HawaiiArmo

    How about we stop sugar coating the obvious, and I realize this isn’t an overtly political blog, but it’s time to make a stand. Let’s get the hell out of Iraq, and spend the money on science. How about first, improve science education, through better accountability, and spreading of the financial wealth. Second, expand the funding to fundamental sciences, such as space exploration, stem cell research, molecular biology, medicine, etc.
    We may not have the Soviets to compete against, but in the long run, we’ll have China, even Brazil taking great strides in Space research. It’s about time the morons in Congress actually read a book or two. I have met some of these politicians personally, and let’s just say they’re not exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. It’s sad to realize just how ignorant and uninformed our supposed leaders are. In order to represent the people, and lead effectively, it would be nice to have some long term goals, not just when the next elections occur, or how to pander to the constituency. I realize most folks in the sciences cannot afford to be so outspoken, considering the ramifications, but some of us have to take an outright political stance. There can be no science without politics, but unfortunately, with the state of politics today, science is left in the bottom end of the priorities list. Priority 1) Mislead the American public to capitalize on their ignorance, 2) Pretend that Political parties actually look out for people, 3) Make sure corporations are considered individuals, 4) Redirect taxpayer funding to further stuff pockets, 5) Appear Sympathetic and feign concern, 6) Channel funding away from education so the elite remain unchallenged, 7) Allow Cocaine, Heroin, Methamphetamines on the streets to keep the disenfranchised poor and ineffective in mounting opposition, 8) misRead the bible literally because Jesus wanted capital punishment, torture, the killing of civilians, the forced dissemination of religion, racism, hatred of critics and skeptics, etc…….

  12. I’ll seond that Hawaii Armo! Well said. Lets invade asteroids for science not other countries for oil!

    Fantastic tohear Dawn is rising again. I’d hoped it would – & something similar happened to the Pluto-bound New Horizons mission.

    Just marvellous to hear.

    Can’t wait to see the images of the largest asteroid and volcanic (well long-ago volcanic anyhow) Vesta from the spaceprobe itself.

    As for refining NASA & where its going I think there is a place for it and it deserves to be funded properly. Now okay I’m a self-confessed fan but Ithink youneedtolook at how NASA lsaded ontheMoon and has achieved somuch lese while the best private entrepreneurs (spelling?) have managed so far is sub-orbital shots – you know the kind Al Shepard and Gus Grissomdid with good old NASA back in the 1950s. ūüėČ

    Give NASA the $ I say and if that means America can’t afford to invade any other places round the globe then so much the better for the world!

  13. Kaptain K

    “I know when the shuttle is retired, a large sum will be become available. At least, I hope it works that way.”


    Remember the “peace dividend” that we were supposed to reap when we didn’t have to fight the cold war with the Soviet Union?

  14. actionsaxon


  15. John Fleming

    Saw this news piece on New Scientist this morning, and figured, ‘I bet this will be welcome news for BA.’ Of course, I’m right! As a person who, if it were up to me, would be sending (robot) missions to every solar system feature of any significance, I can say this is definitely welcome news. Hmmm, 2015 — isn’t that when New Horizons should be waking up?

  16. Irishman

    HawaiiArmo Said:
    >7) Allow Cocaine, Heroin, Methamphetamines on the streets to keep the disenfranchised poor and ineffective in mounting opposition,

    Yeah, we all know how hard the government is trying to distribute this stuff. I mean, it’s not like they’re cracking down on distributors, dealers, and users. You would think if they were serious they’d, I don’t know, maybe declare WAR on Drugs or something. And start incarcerating people left and right for minor possession offenses. Yeah, that’s the ticket! Our stupid government hasn’t done any of these things yet, they must want drugs on the street. *rolleyes*

  17. Will

    I can only repeat what I’ve offered before: perhaps space is too expensive even for a superpower to navigate by itself. NASA should consider aliances with ALL the folks attempting to visit the cosmos, cooperating both with money and technical assistance. Or better still, let the private efforts ongoing in some countries unite. (A) cooperative venture(s) don’t stroke the ego as much as the “I did it all by myself” attitude, though. And from the looks of things, this government is headed for massive bankruptcy and much foreign ownership of our mounting I.O.U.s. – China, Japan and some European countries being the main creditors. And creditors have a way of purse tightening when their investments are in jeapordy. The arguments about where to direct NASA missions will probably be moot in the next few years. And with the decline of oil supplies and the continued refusal of both this government and most of its citizens to recognize this, I wonder how much longer we’ll be seen as superpower no. 1, anyway. Of course, we could certainly maintain our presence in the world militarily by sacrificing much of the future budgets to keep the military at the beck and call of an increasingly war-minded congress and presidency. The “war on terror” seems to be as well thought out and executed as is the “war on drugs.” Much of the Islamic world already looks upon us as a bully, so what’s to loose in the way of a reputation? It looks like China will replace the old Soviet Union as the next “cold war” adversary. Keeping the remaining supplies of oil away from this sleeping tiger may prove much more difficult than the saber rattlers in congress realize, though…

  18. Andrew

    Dr. Phil (ok bad pun I am sorry)

    I am curious about DAWNs ion propulsion unit. You have stated that the ion drive will achieve far greater velocities than traditional chemical rockets. How much more velocity can we expect to see, and how efficiant are these systems, what is their primary fuel souce?

  19. Dawn is to go to asteroid Vesta and Ceres. There are terms for their study. In keeping with using Greek prefixes for planetary studies (selenogy for the Moon, areology for Mars, hermeology for Mercury; terms that have been around for centuries) The study of Vesta would be hestiology (Hestia is her Greek equivalent) and demeterology for Ceres (Demeter was the Greek goddess of grain and agriculture; her Roman equivalent was Ceres).
    The word cereal comes from Ceres. If Will Keith Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, had preferred Greek to Latin, we would be eating Rice Krispies demetral for breakfast. Just being technical.

  20. Dawn’s in trouble. Must be Tuesday.

  21. HawaiiArmo

    Irishman, there is no effective war on drugs. Half the resources are spent chasing after Marijuana, when in fact, greater social hazards are occuring all over the place. Second, ok, maybe that statement was a bit reactive, but living in Hawaii, I see just how effectively the authorities here deal with Crystal Meth, and it would shock you at the incompetence of it all. I’ve lived in LA before, and again, I’ve seen just how effectively the authorities deal with crack and heroin. Perhaps at the federal level, there may be a poor attempt at preventing all of it, but the mismanagement at the local level is not unheard of, and in fact, proliferates all over the US. The reason, is the lack of accountability, they’ll throw money at various programs, without checking for efficacy. They’re not being scientific about their methodology, because surprisingly, they lack the educational background to understand critical thinking.

  22. Irishman

    All of which is irrelevant to your post. You accuse the government of wanting there to be cheap drugs available on the streets. You need more to prove that than inefficient and ineffective policy. You just said it yourself:
    “They√Ę‚ā¨‚ĄĘre not being scientific about their methodology, because surprisingly, they lack the educational background to understand critical thinking.”

    In other words, they’re idiots. Idiots often do things in a manner inconsistent with their desired results. It’s the result of being idiots.

  23. Troy

    Ad Asteroid!
    I’m really happy DAWN is back. It seemed like what is called a ‘silly season’ cancellation. (That’s where Washington is doing silly things while hammering out budget items.) It didn’t make any sense and it is a fantastic mission.

    The name DAWN comes from the fact that asteroids have material from the DAWN of the solar system, but I’d bet that the surfaces will be a lot more interesting than that. Vesta seems to be more consistant with lava flows (I think part of the reason that it is the only asteroid visible to the naked eye) and Ceres has that big white spot on it. I’m wondering if possibly a trip to Pallas might be possible as part of an extended mission. Then it could round up the big three.

    At any rate the asteroid mission, in my opinion, was much more important than the New Horizons mission to Pluto, in that a manned Ceres of Vesta mission is actually possible within our lifetimes.

  24. icemith

    Are we witnessing the dawn of the Dawn of the Age of Reason? I hope so, for all our sakes.


  25. Troy

    Regarding an earlier comment I made about an extended mission to Pallas. I’m pretty sure that would be unlikely or impossible. Pallas’ orbital inclination is greater than 30 degrees and so I don’t think an orbital is possible but maybe a flyby when the nodes cross? If anybody knows I’d be curious to find out.

  26. Why don’t you parasitic science nerds pay for your own boring little projects and stop your constant whining for more money from the rest of us?

    Now shut up and stick to inventing gadgets, or you’re all fired.

  27. I’m Alexandria cool blog, Thanks


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