NASA Dawn Asteroid Mission Told To ‘Stand Down’
Snapshots of the asteroid 1 Ceres taken by the Hubble Space Telescope provide clues about the asteroid's interior make-up. The bright spot that appears in each image is a mystery.
Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Parker (Southwest Research Institute), P. Thomas (Cornell University), and L. McFadden (University of Maryland, College Park)

A NASA mission to two of the largest asteroids in the solar system being readied for liftoff next year has been placed in "stand down" mode.

The ion-engine propelled Dawn mission is dedicated to investigating the two most massive asteroids known: Vesta and Ceres. These two "baby planets" are very different from each other yet both offer tantalizing clues about the formation of the solar system. Dawn is designed to improve scientific understanding of how planets formed during the earliest epoch of the solar system.

Dawn has been on NASA's books for liftoff in mid-June 2006.

The decision to stand down, according to SPACE.com sources, appears related to budget-related measures and workforce cutbacks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Extremely robust mission

"Yes...NASA has asked us to stand down," said Dawn's principal investigator, Christopher Russell of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). "None of us take this as any indication that they [NASA Headquarters] do not want to launch Dawn," he told SPACE.com, given "strong words of support" from space agency personnel in Washington, D.C.

Russell said that Dawn is an extremely robust mission. The particular launch opportunity that the spacecraft mission is heading for is extremely long--over a year long, he noted.

"This is both a blessing and a curse," Russell said. "Typically a planetary mission heading to a launch opportunity has a very limited time for any delays. In this case, we can tolerate delay in launch without science impact, and so when someone wishes to review an issue to gain more confidence that it is completely resolved then it may result in increased expenditures but not loss of the mission," he added.

Russell said that there are a number of technical issues that on a chemical launch would be examined in parallel to development, "but in this case we were asked to stand down while an independent assessment team reports back to headquarters. This has interrupted the final preparations for launch and we wish that they had not done this, but it is something we can tolerate."

Econo-class mission

Dawn is a NASA Discovery-class mission, selected in December 2001. The goal of the Discovery program is to launch many smaller missions with fast development times, each for a fraction of the cost of NASA's larger missions. Such spacecraft missions are designed to tackle important questions in science yet do it for a very modest cost.

Dawn is managed by JPL with Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Virginia developing the spacecraft.

Earlier this year, the Dawn spacecraft began Assembly, Test and Launch Operations (ATLO). Spacecraft integration and testing of Dawn has been progressing very well, according to Tom Fraschetti, JPL's Dawn Project Manager in a status update last month that was posted on the Dawn project website.

Ceres, the mini planet

The importance of spacecraft exploration of Ceres, for instance, was recently underscored by astronomical study of the object.

In September it was announced that observations of Ceres made by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope revealed that the object may be a "mini planet"--perhaps loaded with large amounts of pure water ice beneath its surface.

"Ceres is an embryonic planet," noted Lucy McFadden of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland. She is a member of the team that made the Hubble observations, and is also a member of the science team on the Dawn mission.

"Gravitational perturbations from Jupiter billions of years ago prevented Ceres from accreting more material to become a full-fledged planet," McFadden explained in a press release announcing the observations, issued by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.