The mysterious asteroid Vesta may well have more surprises in store. Despite past observations that Vesta would be nearly bone dry, newly published research indicates that about half of the giant asteroid is sufficiently cold and dark enough that water ice could theoretically exist below the battered surface.

Scientists working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland have derived the first models of Vesta’s average global temperatures and illumination by the Sun based on data obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Near the north and south poles, the conditions appear to be favorable for water ice to exist beneath the surface,” says Timothy Stubbs of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The research by Timothy Stubbs and Yongli Wang, of the Goddard Planetary Heliophysics Institute at the University of Maryland, was published in the January 2012 issue of the journal Icarus.

If any water lurks beneath Vesta, it would most likely exist at least 10 feet (3 meters) below the North and South poles because the models predict that the poles are the coldest regions on the giant asteroid and the equatorial regions are too warm.

Global Map of Average Surface Temperature of Vesta
This global map of average surface temperature shows the warmer equatorial zone of the giant asteroid Vesta is likely too warm to sustain water ice below the surface. But roughly half of Vesta is so cold and receives so little sunlight on average that water ice could have survived there for billions of years. The dividing lines (solid gray) are found at about 27 degrees north latitude and 27 degrees south latitude. This map, with temperatures given in kelvins, comes from the first published models of the average global temperature and illumination conditions on Vesta. Credit: NASA/GSFC/UMBC

If proven, the existence of water ice at Vesta would have vast implications for the formation and evolution of the tiny body and upend current theories.

The surface of Vesta is not cold enough for ice to survive all the time because unlike the Moon, it probably does not have any significant permanently shadowed craters where water ice could stay frozen on the surface indefinitely.

Even the huge 300 mile diameter (480-kilometer) crater at the South Pole is not a good candidate for water ice because Vesta is tilted 27 degrees on its axis, a bit more than Earth’s tilt of 23 degrees.

By contrast, the Moon is only tilted 1.5 degrees and possesses many permanently shadowed craters. NASA’s LCROSS impact mission proved that water ice exists inside permanently shadowed lunar craters.

New modeling shows that, under present conditions, Vesta's polar regions are cold enough (less than about 145 kelvins) to sustain water ice for billions of years, as this map of average surface temperature around the asteroid's south pole indicates.

The models predict that the average annual temperature around Vesta’s poles is below minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit (145 kelvins). Water ice is not stable above that temperature in the top 10 feet of Vestan soil, or regolith.

At the equator and in a band stretching to about 27 degrees north and south in latitude, the average annual temperature is about minus 190 degrees Fahrenheit (145 kelvins), which is too high for the ice to survive.

“On average, it’s colder at Vesta’s poles than near its equator, so in that sense, they are good places to sustain water ice,” says Stubbs in a NASA statement. “But they also see sunlight for long periods of time during the summer seasons, which isn’t so good for sustaining ice. So if water ice exists in those regions, it may be buried beneath a relatively deep layer of dry regolith.”

Vesta is the second most massive asteroid in the main Asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA’s Dawn Asteroid Orbiter is the very first mission to Vesta and achieved orbit in July 2011 for a 1 year long mission.

Dawn is currently circling Vesta at its lowest planned orbit. The three science instruments are snapping pictures and the spectrometers are collecting data on the elemental and mineralogical composition of Vesta.

The onboard GRaND spectrometer in particular could shed light on the question of whether water ice exists at Vesta.

So far no water has been detected, but the best data is yet to come.

In July 2012, Dawn fires up its ion thrusters and spirals out of orbit to begin the journey to Ceres, the largest asteroid of them all.

Ceres is believed to harbor huge caches of water, either as ice or in the form of oceans and is a potential habitat for life.

Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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