5 Weird Things About Vesta

by Elizabeth Howell on March 29, 2013

An impact structure on asteroid Vesta resembling a snowman. Credit: NASA

An impact structure on asteroid Vesta resembling a snowman. Credit: NASA

When Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers first glimpsed Vesta on March 29, 1807 — this date in history — the asteroid was but a small point of light. Asteroid science was very, very new at the time as the first asteroid (Ceres) had been discovered only six years before.

Fast-forward 200-plus years and we can treat Vesta as a little world in its own right. NASA sent the Dawn spacecraft in orbit for about a year, which has produced a wealth of weird results. (Stay tuned for what happens at Dawn’s next port of call: Ceres.)

Below are five strange things we’ve discovered about Vesta:

1) Vesta has a fresh face.

This image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows a close up of part of the rim around the crater Canuleia on the giant asteroid Vesta. Canuleia, about 6 miles (10 kilometers) in diameter, is the large crater at the bottom-left of this image. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/PSI/Brown

This image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows a close up of part of the rim around the crater Canuleia on the giant asteroid Vesta. Canuleia, about 6 miles (10 kilometers) in diameter, is the large crater at the bottom-left of this image. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/PSI/Brown

Space “weathering” from tiny particles hitting the Moon has shaped the surface over time. Not so much on Vesta. It turns out the topography on the asteroid (and other factors) allow constant mixing of the surface, making it appear almost new even though the asteroid is several billion years old. “Vesta ‘dirt’ is very clean, well mixed and highly mobile,” said Carle Pieters, one of the lead authors and a Dawn team member based at Brown University, Providence, R.I. when the finding was made public.

2) Vesta might have stretch marks.

Dawn image of Vesta showing its nearly circumferential equatorial grooves (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Dawn image of Vesta showing its nearly circumferential equatorial grooves (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

While trying to wrap their mind around fault lines that circle Vesta’s equator, a group of scientists proposed these could be graban — features that show surface expansion. It’s possible these faults came to be after something big smashed into the planet, creating a gigantic crater with a peak that is almost three times as high as Mt. Everest. The expansion occurred as Vesta’s interior differentiated, or experienced a separation of its core, mantle and crust.

3) Vesta kind of looks like a planet.

'Rainbow-Colored Palette' of Southern Hemisphere of Asteroid Vesta from NASA Dawn Orbiter. This mosaic using color data obtained by the framing camera aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows Vesta's southern hemisphere in false color, centered on the Rheasilvia impact basin, about 290 miles (467 kilometers) in diameter with a central mound reaching about 14 miles (23 kilometers) high. The black hole in the middle is data that have been omitted due to the angle between the sun, Vesta and the spacecraft.  The green areas suggest the presence of the iron-rich mineral pyroxene or large-sized particles. This mosaic was assembled using images obtained during Dawn's approach to Vesta, at a resolution of 480 meters per pixel. The German Aerospace Center and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research provided the Framing Camera instrument and funding as international partners on the mission team.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

‘Rainbow-Colored Palette’ of Southern Hemisphere of Asteroid Vesta from NASA Dawn Orbiter. This mosaic using color data obtained by the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows Vesta’s southern hemisphere in false color, centered on the Rheasilvia impact basin, about 290 miles (467 kilometers) in diameter with a central mound reaching about 14 miles (23 kilometers) high. The black hole in the middle is data that have been omitted due to the angle between the sun, Vesta and the spacecraft. The green areas suggest the presence of the iron-rich mineral pyroxene or large-sized particles. This mosaic was assembled using images obtained during Dawn’s approach to Vesta, at a resolution of 480 meters per pixel. The German Aerospace Center and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research provided the Framing Camera instrument and funding as international partners on the mission team. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Looking at Vesta in false color — wavelengths that let different kinds of minerals shine — show a veritable cornucopia of different types of stuff.  There’s the iron-rich mineral pyroxene, there’s diagenite material (characteristic of stony meteorites), and various particles of different sizes and ages. “Vesta is a transitional body between a small asteroid and a planet and is unique in many ways,” said mission scientist Vishnu Reddy of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany. “We do not know why Vesta is so special.”

4) Vesta has hydrogen.

Hydrated minerals are circling the equator of the little world. It’s not quite water, but still an interesting find for scientists. “The source of the hydrogen within Vesta’s surface appears to be hydrated minerals delivered by carbon-rich space rocks that collided with Vesta at speeds slow enough to preserve their volatile content,” stated Thomas Prettyman, lead scientist for Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) from the Planetary Science Institute.

5) The northern and southern hemispheres look completely different.

Shaded-relief topographic map of Vesta southern hemisphere showing two large impact basins - Rheasilvia and Older Basin. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Shaded-relief topographic map of Vesta southern hemisphere showing two large impact basins – Rheasilvia and Older Basin.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

It’s fun to get to a new world and end up with something fundamentally surprising. Some of the very first pictures of Vesta showed a vast difference between different regions of the planet, giving scientists a workout in terms of figuring out how that came to be. “The northern hemisphere is older and heavily cratered in contrast to the brighter southern hemisphere where the texture is more smooth and there are lots of sets of grooves. There is a massive mountain at the South Pole. One of the more surprising aspects is the set of deep equatorial troughs,” said Carol Raymond, Dawn deputy principal investigator, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Here’s a video where you can see that for yourself:

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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