Emily LakdawallaJun 03, 2011

A plea for more pictures from Dawn

If you had asked me last year what I was most looking forward to in space in 2011, my answer would have been unhesitating: Dawn's approach to Vesta. Never in my adult life have I been able to follow a space mission as it discovered a large new world for the first time. Nearly all the other missions I've witnessed -- MESSENGER to Mercury, Venus Express to Venus, a host of spacecraft to the Moon and Mars, Galileo and New Horizons to Jupiter, Cassini to Saturn -- have been follow-up missions to previously reconned destinations. As wonderful as these missions have been, they don't have anything that quite compares to the very first view of a strange new world (with the possible exception of the three surface landings I've seen -- Spirit, Opportunity, and Huygens). The only missions for which I've enjoyed this exciting sense of community discovery of a new world are comet and asteroid missions, which is why Hayabusa is among my very favorite missions of all time and Itokawa one of my favorite places in the solar system.

Dawn's first look at Vesta
Dawn's first look at Vesta Dawn caught its first view of Vesta on May 3, 2011, from 1.2 million kilometers away. The asteroid is so bright relative to background stars that its size is dramatically exaggerated in this photo.Image: NASA / JPL / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

One month ago, Dawn began its Approach Phase, the first phase in its science mission to Vesta. Its first image of Vesta showed little more than a bright dot among background stars, but it was thrilling nonetheless. I couldn't wait to watch with the science team as they homed in on that dot. At first, throughout May, it would remain little more than a bright dot, but one that moved with respect to background stars, its motion telling how near Dawn was to it. This month, I expected to begin to see it spread as a few pixels across the sky, some darker, some brighter, the darker and brighter pixels impossible to correlate from one image to the next, but still offering enticing clues at variations on Vesta's surface that Dawn would soon be able to map. Later this month, there would be more pixels across Vesta than we have managed to see in Hubble photos; with Dawn's exquisitely slow approach I anticipated the stretching-out of that feeling of discovery of a new place, as Vesta came ever so slowly into focus, week by passing week.

That's what I thought was going to happen. Just one image per week, like Deep Impact's from its approach to Hartley 2, would have been enough to satisfy me, and, I think, most other people. Instead, we've seen nothing more than that very first "Land Ho" image. I was patient for a few weeks, but finally (and with prodding in the form of emails from several readers) I sent an inquiry last week to the mission's principal investigator, Christopher Russell, congratulating him on finally being so close to his destination, and asking about what I could tell you readers about the plans for image release prior to Dawn's arrival.

Here's what Chris replied:

We had quite a debate within the team as to how many navigation images to release. These images are optimized for determining the position of the spacecraft relative to Vesta and not for making pretty pictures of Vesta. They have artifacts due to overexposure such as streaks and haloes. And they do not change very rapidly. Secondly we did not want to bore our supporters with the same old (apparently) image ever week. So we came down on the side of waiting to release images when there was something new.

We will have a press conference from NASA headquarters most probably on July 6th. After that the releases should be much more frequent.

Sorry for being coy but some believe that piques curiosity more than showing everything. The bottom line is we developed a release plan and have decided to all work to the same plan.I'm glad he replied to my email but I felt that Chris was missing the point of why members of the public would want to see approach images. It is not to enjoy pretty pictures. It is to "ride along" with the mission, to enjoy that thrill of discovering a new place for the first time. The Internet permits the public to participate vicariously in space missions, looking over the shoulders of the privileged few who get to (and get paid to!) explore the solar system through the eyes of robots. I also thought that he was selling Dawn short to descibe its approach as being "boring" to the public. I sent a reply to this effect, and he wrote back:

We certainly intend to share images when we have them. I do not consider the nav frames to be 'images' of Vesta. They are star fields with an overexposed bright spot in the center. The public deserves better than that. It will get better than that when we take pictures optimized for Vesta and not the star field. I am as anxious as you are for that day and the nav images do nothing to quench my thirst for those later images.

So that is that. It's really disappointing, and a very old-school way of doing things. Out of curiosity, I looked at the Voyager Mission Status Bulletins that I recently posted on our website, and noted that the rate of image release for images taken on initial approach to Jupiter was similar -- "Land Ho!" on April 13, 1978, followed by the first images with decent detail on Jupiter about two months later, on June 27, 1978. Of course the Voyager images were shared with the public through mimeographed newsletters sent by snail mail.

I've tried to send a couple of other inquiries on the topic to other Dawn mission team members, but to a man they have all declined to comment and referred me back to Chris Russell. This isn't surprising; on Discovery missions (and unlike larger missions), the Principal Investigator has a great deal of control, so the outreach style varies a great deal from mission to mission, and it's ultimately up to him to decide when and how to communicate with the public. I understand where he is coming from, but I think he is wrong.

Where he's coming from: getting the media to pay attention to robotic space exploration is a challenge. Your only hope is to make a big splash with big news at few, rare press conferences, and hold everything else close to the vest. On the science side of things, everyone involved in Dawn has invested many years of their lives in a mission; so far this investment has produced basically no scientific publications, which are the critical measure of your success as a scientist. Sharing images spills some of the hard-won data before you have a chance to publish and get some return on your investment, inviting others to come in and "scoop" you.

But I think that both of these concerns are misguided. Addressing the media concerns first: most mainstream media outlets, who have mostly been shrinking rather than enlarging their coverage of science lately, simply do not pay attention to anything that is not accompanied by a press release and a press conference. Releasing a selected few scientifically unimportant but historically significant approach images at some regular rate -- say, once a week -- would be passed over by most mainstream media, who will make the same amount of splash about your press-released story about your new views of this asteroid none of them have ever heard of anyway when you're ready to press-release it, whether or not you've put out a few images beforehand. Even science media generally only write about a story when there is a press release. And bloggers like me will use regular updates to whip our enthusiast followers into a frenzy about approaching mission events.

In fact, doing regular releases of these approach images is also a perfect way to engage the newest of new media, meaning the sharing of pictures and links via social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. These media work very differently from newspapers, TV, and magazines. They don't do long news stories; they deal with the news and events of the current moment. So the best way to engage people through these media is to put out your news and images in tiny dribs and drabs that can be picked up and retweeted and shared and reposted, rippling across social networks. People who retweet or share these tiny fragments of mission stories are generally people who are interested in space, but their networks are likely primarily composed of people who are not. By engaging the public with frequent, tiny bits of information, you're engaging an army of followers who can drop news about your mission directly on to the home pages of millions of people who may not have sought out that sort of news on their own. With the current policy, Dawn is almost entirely absent from these media. (By the way, if you'd like to give a vote of support for sharing Dawn images through social networks, try "Liking" the Dawn Framing Camera page on Facebook, which has only 24 likes at present.)

Regarding the science concerns, here I'll quote Jim Bell, who (along with Steve Squyres) chose to put out all of the rovers' images as soon as possible after they hit the ground:

Spirit also helped us test an experiment: If we put all the rover's images out on the Web for everyone in the world to see, in near real-time, would people follow along? They did! Would our colleagues outside the team "scoop" us scientifically? Didn't happen. I believe that the experiment has been a great success, and a model for future planetary missions. I wonder if, maybe 10 or 15 years from now, I'll meet some young colleagues who were turned on to space exploration by being able to check out the latest Spirit images from Mars from their classroom, or living room, every day when they were a kid. That would be extremely satisfying -- and a great testament to the power of openly sharing data from space exploration missions like Spirit's.

So I think that Chris Russell should reconsider his position. If it's too late for Vesta, it's not too late for Ceres. I'll close by quoting some arguments posted in the Dawn approach thread at unmannedspaceflight.com. All of these people are space fans who reach out through their own communities to share the excitement of space exploration.

Stuart Atkinson (Stu): The front page of the DAWN mission's website declares the mission is all about "Exploring New Worlds". Sorry, but this lack of approach images is akin to Columbus locking all the Santa Maria's crew below decks and refusing to let them see The "New World" until they were within spitting distance of the beach...
Nigel Gunn (ngunn):If everything so far is pre-scientific pixels what possible purpose is served by withholding the images and denying enthusiasts a little bit of fun? Steve Squyres was recently challenged by a committee of politicians who told him they would like to do more planetary exploration but asked him "Where is your community?" Well, here we are, and we have to stand up.
Dan Brennan (ElkGroveDan): I find this attitude of, "there's nothing for you in these images" to be a bit condescending.
Lyford Rome (lyford): ...I think such images are important [because] they tell a story, letting us "ride along." Even if there is no discernible difference yet day to day, the ability to check in to see if we can see anything connects us with the mission and provides a narrative with which to engage others. It's kinda like twitter - each single post or image may not convey much or be earth (or dwarf planet) shaking in itself, but the constant contact reinforces the relationship between us and the mission. Anyway, I do remember the days of sending away in the mail for black and white prints or hoarding the National Geographics. So it is a sign of how good we have it that we expect daily updates from our space probes.
Glen Nagle (Astro0): Where the images of Dawn's approach would be useful is through their use by Outreach professionals....Building the anticipation of the journey/approach is important. It helps build the story and the relationship with the viewer. Using a series of approach images and comparing it to a simulation or a side by side with Hubble's observations and other projected views all help with developing the interest. If people can be a part of the story by seeing what the scientist sees then they make an investment in continuing find out more as the story develops.
centsworth_II: Every approach shot could be released to the Dawn website and 99 percent of the public would remain blissfully unaware until they were slapped in the face by a widespread press release photo of Vesta in all her glory. At which time perhaps 10 percent of the public would become aware. But that 1 percent of the public that wishes to see each and every image is an important group. They act as unofficial ambassadors to the general public, pointing out and explaining with enthusiasm aspects of missions that do make it to the general press, going into deeper detail where interest warrants.

I'd love to hear from you readers whether you agree or disagree with me on this point. Send me an email!

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