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NASA reviews canceled asteroid mission

In an unusual move, NASA is reviewing a recent decision by an agency head to scrap the Dawn mission, which would send a probe to orbit two asteroids.
An artist's conception shows the proposed Dawn spacecraft, which would visit two asteroids.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In an unusual move, NASA is reviewing a recent decision by an agency head to scrap a mission to orbit two asteroids. The Dawn project was canceled on March 2, five months after it was put on hold because of cost overruns and technical problems.

NASA's unusual step to review Dawn's termination came after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which manages the mission, presented new evidence in support of it, the space agency said Wednesday in a statement.

It's the first time in recent memory that a NASA center has challenged a headquarters decision on a canceled mission, said NASA spokeswoman Erica Hupp.

The review, headed by NASA Associate Administrator Rex Geveden, will take into account JPL's new findings and the results from an independent team dispatched to evaluate the mission. A decision was expected as early as the end of the month.

NASA headquarters declined to say what the new evidence was and refused to make Geveden available for an interview. JPL spokeswoman Veronica McGregor said the center had no comment pending the review.

JPL director Charles Elachi previously expressed disappointment in the cancellation. Elachi said the technical woes cited by the independent team were either resolved or close to being fixed in time for a liftoff next year.

Visiting Ceres and Vesta
Powered by a xenon ion engine, Dawn was supposed to be the first spacecraft to circle Ceres and Vesta, two of the solar system's largest asteroids that reside in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Scientists believe asteroids are leftover rocky remnants from the solar system's birth about 4.5 billion years ago, and studying them could yield insight into how the sun and planets formed.

NASA put Dawn on hold last October due to budget issues and problems with the spacecraft's fuel tanks. It then convened an independent team to assess the program.

Managers were taken aback
Project managers were taken aback earlier this month when Mary Cleave, NASA's associate administrator for the science mission directorate, scrubbed the mission after a congressional budget hearing.

Dawn's cancellation came at a time when NASA had been forced to delay several science missions to focus on retiring the space shuttle fleet and developing new piloted vehicles to return to the moon in the next decade.

Andrew Dantzler, director of NASA's solar system division, previously cited cost overruns and technical issues as the main factors for cutting Dawn. The mission, part of NASA's low-budget Discovery program, is cost-capped at about $373 million.