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NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has swooped down to the closest orbit above the monster asteroid Vesta that the craft’s cameras and spectrometers will ever glimpse and the probe has begun transmitting these highest resolution pictures to anxiously waiting scientists back on Earth.
Dawn arrived at its Low Altitude Mapping Orbit, known as LAMO, on Dec. 12, 2011 and will continue circling scarcely 130 miles (210 kilometers) above Vesta for at least the next 10 weeks. Each orbit takes about 4.3 hours.
NASA has now released the first batch of crisp new close-ups images taken by the Framing Camera on Dec. 13 showing the stippled and lumpy surface in an exquisitely fine detail never seen before.
The photo montage below shows side by side views of the same portion of the Vestan surface at ever increasing resolution and clarity from ever lower altitudes.
The high resolution image gallery reveals fine scale highlights such as multitudes of small craters, grooves and lineaments, landslides and slumping, ejecta from past colossal impacts, and small outcrops of bright and dark materials.
The science team, led by Principal Investigator Prof Chris Russell of UCLA, believes that Vesta is actually more like a planet than an asteroid based on the data obtained thus far.
The primary science objectives at the LAMO orbit are to measure the elemental abundances on the surface of Vesta with the US built gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) and to probe the interior structure of the asteroid by measuring the gravity field.
Vesta is a proto-planet formed just a few million years after the birth of the solar system whose evolution into a larger planet was stopped cold by the massive gravitational influence of the planet Jupiter.
Scientists are plowing through thousands of images and millions of spectral measurements to glean clues about the origin and evolution of the solar system that have been preserved on the hitherto unexplored world.
“Vesta is a transitional body between a small asteroid and a planet and is unique in many ways,” says mission scientist Vishnu Reddy of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany. “Vesta is unlike any other asteroid we have visited so far.”
After completing the LAMO measurements, Dawn will again spiral back to a higher altitude for further data gathering especially at the unseen North Pole which is in darkness now.
“What can be more exciting than to explore an alien world that until recently was virtually unknown!” Dr. Marc Rayman told Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
“Dawn continues to gather gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra,” Rayman reports. “The bonus imaging at LAMO is yielding pictures more than three times better than those acquired in the high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO). Every week at this low altitude, Dawn will use its ion propulsion system to fine tune its orbit. The first of these weekly orbit adjustments was performed on December 17.”
The framing cameras eere built by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany.
A treasure trove of spectacular Vesta close-ups are streaming at this moment to the home planet and we’ll have many more goodies to show.
Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:
Holiday Greetings from an Alien Snowman on Vesta
Dawn swoops to lowest orbit around Vesta – Unveiling Spectacular Alien World
Rainbow of Colors Reveal Asteroid Vesta as More Like a Planet
Vrooming over Vivid Vestan Vistas in Vibrant 3 D – Video
NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Dawn Discovers 2nd Giant South Pole Impact Basin at Strikingly Dichotomous Vesta
Amazing New View of the Mt. Everest of Vesta
Dramatic 3 D Imagery Showcases Vesta’s Pockmarked, Mountainous and Groovy Terrain