The Dawn spacecraft is getting closer to asteroid/protoplanet Vesta, and the view is getting better! Here’s the latest image, which was obtained with Dawn’s framing camera on July 1, 2011 and just released today. It was taken from a distance of about 62,000 miles (100,000 kilometers). Each pixel in the image corresponds to roughly 5.8 miles (9.3 kilometers). Features like craters are starting to sharpen as the spacecraft moves closer, as well as the lumps, bumps and variations in color.
The most exciting part of this mission will be finally figuring out what Vesta really is. Here, it’s looking more like a squished version of our own Moon; a little smoother than I was expecting from some of the earlier images.
Some astronomers classify Vesta as an asteroid, some a protoplanet, and some are on the fence. It’s not really considered a dwarf planet, but the classification could be re-evaluated when Dawn gets in orbit of Vesta and studies it in detail.
Below is an “enhanced” view by Stu Atkinson:
Stu sent us this image with the caveat that he created it for his own amusement/entertainment, and that it’s not a scientifically enhanced image — i.e., it’s not to be 100% relied upon for feature identification, etc. But some of the craters show up a tad better.
Vesta is pretty much an enigma: too big for an asteroid and more evolved than other asteroid. But it is kind of too small for a planet (even a dwarf one). But that’s why it is so interesting so scientists and getting Dawn in orbit will be exciting.
Stay tuned for more!