Does Water Ice Lurk Beneath the Poles of Vesta ?

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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.

2011: Top Stories from the Best Year Ever for NASA Planetary Science!

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A year ago, 2011 was proclaimed as the “Year of the Solar System” by NASA’s Planetary Science division. And what a year of excitement it was indeed for the planetary science community, amateur astronomers and the general public alike !

NASA successfully delivered astounding results on all fronts – On the Story of How We Came to Be.

“2011 was definitely the best year ever for NASA Planetary Science!” said Jim Green in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Green is the Director of Planetary Science for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ. “The Search for Life is a significant priority for NASA.”

This past year was without doubt simply breathtaking in scope in terms of new missions, new discoveries and extraordinary technical achievements. The comprehensive list of celestial targets investigated in 2011 spanned virtually every type of object in our solar system – from the innermost planet to the outermost reaches nearly touching interplanetary space.

There was even a stunningly evocative picture showing “All of Humanity” – especially appropriate now in this Holiday season !

You and all of Humanity are here !
-- Earth & Moon Portrait by Juno from 6 Million miles away --
First Photo transmitted from Jupiter Bound Juno shows Earth (on the left) and the Moon (on the right). Taken on Aug. 26, 2011 when spacecraft was about 6 million miles (9.66 million kilometers) away from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Three brand new missions were launched and ongoing missions orbited a planet and an asteroid and flew past a comet.

“NASA has never had the pace of so many planetary launches in such a short time,” said Green.

And three missions here were awarded ‘Best of 2011’ for innovation !

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Dawn and MESSENGER named “Best of What’s New” in 2011 by Popular Science magazine. 3 NASA Planetary Science missions received the innovation award for 2011 from Popular Science magazine. Artist concept shows mosaic of MESSENGER, Mars Science Laboratory and Dawn missions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here’s the Top NASA Planetary Science Stories of 2011 – ‘The Year of the Solar System’ – in chronological order

1. Stardust-NExT Fly By of Comet Tempel 1

Starting from the first moments of 2011 at the dawn of Jan. 1, hopes were already running high for planetary scientists and engineers busily engaged in setting up a romantic celestial date in space between a volatile icy comet and an aging, thrusting probe on Valentine’s Day.

The comet chasing Stardust-Next spacecraft successfully zoomed past Comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14 at 10.9 km/sec (24,000 MPH) after flying over 6 Billion kilometers (3.5 Billion mi).

6 Views of Comet Tempel 1 and Deep Impact crater during Stardust-NExT flyby on Feb. 14, 2011
Arrows show location of man-made crater created in 2005 by NASA’s prior Deep Impact comet mission and newly imaged as Stardust-NExT zoomed past comet in 2011. The images progress in time during closest approach to comet beginning at upper left and moving clockwise to lower left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Maryland. Post process and annotations by Marco Di Lorenzo & Kenneth Kremer

The craft approached within 178 km (111mi) and snapped 72 astonishingly detailed high resolution science images over barely 8 minutes. It also fulfilled the teams highest hopes by photographing the human-made crater created on Tempel 1 in 2005 by a cosmic collision with a penetrator hurled by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft. The probe previously flew by Comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned cometary coma particles to Earth in 2006

Tempel 1 is the first comet to be visited by two spaceships from Earth and provided the first-ever opportunity to compare observations on two successive passages around the Sun.

Don Brownlee, the original Principal Investigator, summarized the results for Universe Today; “A great bonus of the mission was the ability to flyby two comets and take images and measurements. The wonderfully successful flyby of Comet Tempel 1 was a great cap to the 12 year mission and provided a great deal of new information to study the diversity among comets.”

“The new images of Tempel showed features that form a link between seemingly disparate surface features of the 4 comets imaged by spacecraft. Combining data on the same comet from the Deep Impact and Stardust missions has provided important new insights in to how comet surfaces evolve over time and how they release gas and dust into space”.

2. MESSENGER at Mercury

On March 18, the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging, or MESSENGER, spacecraft became the first spacecraft inserted into orbit around Mercury, the innermost planet.

So far MESSENGER has completed 1 solar day – 176 Earth days- circling above Mercury. The probe has collected a treasure trove of new data from the seven instruments onboard yielding a scientific bonanza; these include global imagery of most of the surface, measurements of the planet’s surface chemical composition, topographic evidence for significant amounts of water ice, magnetic field and interactions with the solar wind.

“MESSENGER discovered that Mercury has an enormous core, larger than Earth’s. We are trying to understand why that is and why Mercury’s density is similar to Earth’s,” Jim Green explained to Universe Today.

The First Solar Day
After its first Mercury solar day (176 Earth days) in orbit, MESSENGER has nearly completed two of its main global imaging campaigns: a monochrome map at 250 m/pixel and an eight-color, 1-km/pixel color map. Small gaps will be filled in during the next solar day. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

“The primary mission lasts 2 solar days, equivalent to 4 Mercury years.”

“NASA has granted a 1 year mission extension, for a total of 8 Mercury years. This will allow the team to understand the environment at Mercury during Solar Maximum for the first time. All prior spacecraft observations were closer to solar minimum,” said Green.

MESSENGER was launched in 2004 and the goal is to produce the first global scientific observations of Mercury and piece together the puzzle of how Mercury fits in with the origin and evolution of our solar system.

NASA’s Mariner 10 was the only previous robotic probe to explore Mercury, during three flyby’s back in the mid-1970’s early in the space age.

3. Dawn Asteroid Orbiter

The Dawn spacecraft achieved orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta in July 2011 after a four year interplanetary cruise and began transmitting the history making first ever close-up observations of the mysteriously diverse and alien world that is nothing short of a ‘Space Spectacular’.

“We do not have a good analog to Vesta anywhere else in the Solar System,” Chris Russell said to Universe Today. Russell, from UCLA, is the scientific Principal Investigator for Dawn.

Before Dawn, Vesta was just another fuzzy blob in the most powerful telescopes. Dawn has completely unveiled Vesta as a remarkably dichotomous, heavily battered and pockmarked world that’s littered with thousands of craters, mountains and landslides and ringed by mystifying grooves and troughs. It will unlock details about the elemental abundances, chemical composition and interior structure of this marvelously intriguing body.

Cataclysmic collisions eons ago excavated Vesta so it lacks a south pole. Dawn discovered that what unexpectedly remains is an enormous mountain some 16 miles (25 kilometers) high, twice the height of Mt. Everest.

Dawn is now about midway through its 1 year mission at Vesta which ends in July 2012 with a departure for Ceres, the largest asteroid. So far the framing cameras have snapped more than 10,000 never-before-seen images.

“What can be more exciting than to explore an alien world that until recently was virtually unknown!. ” Dr. Marc Rayman said to Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

“Dawn is NASA at its best: ambitious, exciting, innovative, and productive.”

4. Juno Jupiter Orbiter

The solar powered Juno spacecraft was launched on Aug. 5 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, to embark on a five year, 2.8 billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mi) trek to Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet. It was the first of three NASA planetary science liftoffs scheduled in 2011.

Juno Jupiter Orbiter soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

Juno’s goal is to map to the depths of the planets interior and elucidate the ingredients of Jupiter’s genesis hidden deep inside. These measurements will help answer how Jupiter’s birth and evolution applies to the formation of the other eight planets.

The 4 ton spacecraft will arrive at the gas giant in July 2016 and fire its braking rockets to go into a polar orbit and circle the planet 33 times over about one year.

The suite of nine instruments will scan the gas giant to find out more about the planets origins, interior structure and atmosphere, measure the amount of water and ammonia, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and search for the existence of a solid planetary core.

“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”

5. Opportunity reaches Endeavour Crater on Mars

The long lived Opportunity rover finally arrived at the rim of the vast 14 mile (22 kilometer) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields – a feat once thought unimaginable. All told, Opportunity has driven more than 34 km ( 21 mi) since landing on the Red Planet way back in 2004 for a mere 90 sol mission.

Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity Mars Rover in August 2011
Opportunity arrived at the rim of Endeavour on Sol 2681, August 9, 2011 after a three year trek. The robot photographed segments of the huge craters eroded rim in this panoramic vista. Endeavour Crater is 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

In November, the rover discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars in the form of a water related mineral vein at a spot dubbed “Homestake” along an eroded ridge of Endeavour’s rim.

Read my story about the Homestake discovery here, along with our panoramic mosaic showing the location – created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo and published by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec. 2011.

Watch for my upcoming story detailing Opportunity’s accomplishments in 2011.

6. GRAIL Moon Mappers

The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL mission is comprised of twin spacecraft tasked to map the moon’s gravity and study the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core.

Twin GRAIL Probes GO for Lunar Orbit Insertion on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
GRAIL spacecraft will map the moon's gravity field and interior composition. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The dynamic duo lifted off from Cape Canaveral on September 10, 2011 atop the last Delta II rocket that will likely soar to space from Florida. After a three month voyage of more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) since blastoff, the two mirror image GRAIL spacecraft dubbed Grail-A and GRAIL-B are sailing on a trajectory placing them on a course over the Moon’s south pole on New Year’s weekend.

Each spacecraft will fire the braking rockets for about 40 minutes for insertion into Lunar Orbit about 25 hours apart on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Engineers will then gradually lower the satellites to a near-polar near-circular orbital altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers).

The spacecraft will fly in tandem and the 82 day science phase will begin in March 2012.

“GRAIL is a Journey to the Center of the Moon”, says Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “GRAIL will rewrite the book on the formation of the moon and the beginning of us.”

“By globally mapping the moon’s gravity field to high precision scientists can deduce information about the interior structure, density and composition of the lunar interior. We’ll evaluate whether there even is a solid or liquid core or a mixture and advance the understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon and the solar system,” explained co-investigator Sami Asmar to Universe Today. Asmar is from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

7. Curiosity Mars Rover

The Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover soared skywards on Nov. 26, the last of 2011’s three planetary science missions. Curiosity is the newest, largest and most technologically sophisticated robotic surveyor that NASA has ever assembled.

“MSL packs the most bang for the buck yet sent to Mars.” John Grotzinger, the Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist of the California Institute of Technology, told Universe Today.

The three meter long robot is the first astrobiology mission since the Viking landers in the 1970’s and specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars – the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System.


Video caption: Action packed animation depicts sequences of Curiosity departing Earth, the nail biting terror of the never before used entry, descent and landing on the Martian surface and then looking for signs of life at Gale Crater during her minimum two year expedition across hitherto unseen and unexplored Martian landscapes, mountains and craters. Credit: NASA

Curiosity will gather and analyze samples of Martian dirt in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA is targeting Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the 154 km (96 mile) wide Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. The crater exhibits exposures of phyllosilicates and other minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life and is dominated by a towering 3 mile (5 km) high mountain.

“10 science instruments are all aimed at a mountain whose stratigraphic layering records the major breakpoints in the history of Mars’ environments over likely hundreds of millions of years, including those that may have been habitable for life,” Grotzinger told me.

Titan Upfront
The colorful globe of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, passes in front of the planet and its rings in this true color snapshot from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover and Ken Kremer - inside the Cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center. Last View of Curiosity just prior to folding and encapsulation for launch. Credit: Ken Kremer

This past year Ken was incredibly fortunate to witness the ongoing efforts of many of these magnificent endeavors.

NASA’s Dawn Orbiter snaps Best Ever Images of Vesta

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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.

Closer and Closer to the Vesta Surface
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has spiraled closer and closer to the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta since arriving in mid-2011. The two images on the left represent an identical area, first observed during Dawn's survey orbit (far left image). The picture in the center is from Dawn's high-altitude mapping orbit (HAMO) from an altitude of about 430 miles (700 km) with about 230 feet (70 meters-per-pixel) resolution. The image at right was obtained on Dec. 13 from the low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) at an altitude of 124 miles (199 km) above the surface and has a resolution of 75 feet (23 m) per pixel. It shows small impact craters or slumping at the steep-flanked mountain in the image center that can be identified in the two images to the left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

Vesta is the smallest terrestrial planet in our Solar System”, Russell told Universe Today. “We do not have a good analog to Vesta anywhere else in the Solar System.”

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.

Buried Craters on Vesta
This Dec. 13 image from Dawn spacecraft in its low altitude mapping orbit shows many buried craters located within the equatorial trough region of Vesta. This area bears traces of the material thrown out by the impact that created the Rheasilvia basin in the asteroid’s south polar region. Lineated features are visible in a variety of shapes and sizes from an altitude of 117 miles (189 km) over an area of 11 mi x 11 mi (18 km x 18 km). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“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.

Dawn will continue orbiting Vesta until July 2012 when it will fire up its ion propulsion system and depart for Ceres, the largest body in the main Asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

“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.

Equatorial Trough in Dark and Bright on Vesta
This image was one of the first obtained by Dawn in its low altitude mapping orbit and shows a part of one of the long troughs at the equator of Vesta. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

“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

Holiday Greetings from an Alien Snowman on Vesta

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Celebrate the winter holiday season in the company of an ‘Alien Snowman’ on the asteroid Vesta, someone we didn’t even have a clue about until six months ago.

Vesta and the Snowman have been transformed into the beautiful banner above – sent to me courtesy of the Dawn mission team to share with the readers of Universe Today.

Now you can be a creative artist and use the striking new images of Vesta to fashion your own greeting cards (see below) and send seasonal tidings of winter holiday cheer not possible before – all thanks to the remarkably insightful discoveries of Dawn’s international science team.

Vesta Greeting Card created by Joe W - From Dawn website

The Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta is one of NASA’s crowning scientific accomplishments of 2011 because it’s cameras and spectrometers have unveiled a mysteriously diverse world that has no match elsewhere in our solar system.

The more we explore the unknown the more we are enlightened as to just how limited our view of the Universe is from within the narrow confines of our miniscule abode.

Vesta Greeting Card created by Judy C - From Dawn website
Hey, Let's go skiing at the South Pole !

The Kepler Space Telescopes latest discoveries of Earth-sized worlds are just the latest examples guiding us to a clearer understanding of our place in the Universe.

Vesta Greeting Card created by Jillian S - From Dawn website

Here are just a few of the Vestan images you can masterfully decorate – the Snowman, The Mount Everest of Vesta and the cataclysmically bombarded South Pole.

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

So, let you imaginations run wild with wintery scenes to match the majesty of this matchless world. The Dawn Education and Public Outreach (EPO) team has created several templates which you can access here

Of course you can also use any of the images posted at the Dawn mission website.

The Mount Everest of Vesta
Image of asteroid Vesta calculated from a shape model, showing a tilted view of the topography of the south polar region. This perspective shows the topography, but removes the overall curvature of Vesta, as if the giant asteroid were flat and not rounded. Credit: NASA
Shattered South Pole of Vesta
This Dawn framing camera image shows scarps, hummocky (eg. wavy/ undulating) terrain and impacts in Vesta's south polar region. Credit: NASA

And feel free to post your inspired creations here at Universe Today.

Vesta is the second most massive object in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn arrived in orbit at Vesta in July 2011 for the first ever close up studies of the shattered celestial body. Dawn will spend a year investigating Vesta before spiraling out towards Ceres, the largest asteroid.

Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:
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 Surprise 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
Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin

Dawn swoops to lowest orbit around Vesta – Unveiling Spectacular Alien World

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NASA’s Dawn Asteroid Orbiter successfully spiraled down today to the closest orbit the probe will ever achieve around the giant asteroid Vesta, and has now begun critical science observations that will ultimately yield the mission’s highest resolution measurements of this spectacular body.

“What can be more exciting than to explore an alien world that until recently was virtually unknown!” Dr. Marc Rayman gushed in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and a protégé of Star Trek’s Mr. Scott.

Before Dawn, Vesta was little more than a fuzzy blob in the world’s most powerful telescopes. Vesta is the second most massive object in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn is now circling about Vesta at the lowest planned mapping orbit, dubbed LAMO for Low Altitude Mapping Orbit. The spacecraft is orbiting at an average altitude of barely 130 miles (210 kilometers) above the heavily bombarded and mysterious world that stems from the earliest eons of our solar system some 4.5 Billion years ago. Each orbit takes about 4.3 hours.

“It is both gratifying and exciting that Dawn has been performing so well,” Rayman told me.

Dawn Orbiting Over Vesta - A Hi Res Taste of What's Ahead!
This image of the giant asteroid Vesta was obtained by Dawn in the evening Nov. 27 PST (early morning Nov. 28, UTC), as it was spiraling down from its high altitude mapping orbit to low altitude mapping orbit. Low altitude mapping orbit is the closest orbit Dawn will be making, at an average of 130 miles (210 kilometers) above the giant asteroid's surface. The framing camera obtained this image of an area in the northern mid-latitudes of Vesta from an altitude of about 140 miles (230 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn arrived in orbit at Vesta in July 2011 after a nearly 4 year interplanetary cruise since blasting off atop a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida in September 2007. The probe then spent the first few weeks at an initial science survey altitude of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers).

Gradually the spaceship spiraled down closer to Vesta using her ion propulsion thrusters.

See Vesta science orbit diagram, below, provided courtesy of Dr. Marc Rayman.

Along the way, the international science and engineering team commanded Dawn to make an intermediate stop this past Fall 2011 at the High Altitude Mapping orbit altitude (420 miles, or 680 kilometers).

“It is so cool now to have reached this low orbit [LAMO]. We already have a spectacular collection of images and other fascinating data on Vesta, and now we are going to gain even more,” Rayman told me.

“We have a great deal of work ahead to acquire our planned data here, and I’m looking forward to every bit!

Dawn will spend a minimum of 10 weeks acquiring data at the LAMO mapping orbit using all three onboard science instruments, provided by the US, Germany and Italy.

While the framing cameras (FC) from Germany and the Visible and Infrared Mapping spectrometer (VIR) from Italy will continue to gather mountains of data at their best resolution yet, the primary science focus of the LAMO orbit will be to collect data from the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) and the gravity experiment.

GRaND will measure the elemental abundances on the surface of Vesta by studying the energy and neutron by-products that emanate from it as a result of the continuous bombardment of cosmic rays. The best data are obtained at the lowest altitude.

Dawn spacecraft - Science orbits at Vesta
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marc Rayman

By examining all the data in context, scientists hope to obtain a better understanding of the formation and evolution of the early solar system.

Vesta is a proto-planet, largely unchanged since its formation, and whose evolution into a larger planet was stopped cold by the massive gravitational influence of the planet Jupiter.

Dawn’s visit to Vesta has been eye-opening so far, showing us troughs and peaks that telescopes only hinted at,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator, based at UCLA. “It whets the appetite for a day when human explorers can see the wonders of asteroids for themselves.”

After investigating Vesta for about a year, the engineers will ignite Dawn’s ion propulsion thrusters and blast away to Ceres, the largest asteroid which may harbor water ice and is another potential outpost for extraterrestrial life

Dawn will be the first spaceship to orbit two worlds and is also the first mission to study the asteroid belt in detail.

Asteroid Vesta from Dawn - Exquisite Clarity from a formerly Fuzzy Blob
NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 24, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). Before Dawn, Vesta was just a fuzzy blob in the most powerful telescopes. Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, and will spend a year orbiting the body before firing up the ion propulsion system to break orbit and speed to Ceres, the largest Asteroid. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
South Polar Region of Vesta - Enhanced View
An ancient cosmic collision blasted away much of the south pole of Vesta, leaving behind an enoumous mountain about 3 times the height of Mt. Everest. NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image centered on the south pole of Vesta with its framing camera on July 18, 2011 as it passed the terminator. The image has been enhanced to bring out more surface details. It was taken from a distance of about 6,500 miles (10,500 kilometers) away from the protoplanet Vesta. The smallest detail visible is about 1.2 miles (2.0 km). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Enhanced and annotated by Ken Kremer

Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:

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 Surprise 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
Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin

Rainbow of Colors Reveal Asteroid Vesta as More Like a Planet

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The giant Asteroid Vesta is among the most colorful bodies in our entire solar system and it appears to be much more like a terrestrial planet than a mere asteroid, say scientists deciphering stunning new images and measurements of Vesta received from NASA’s revolutionary Dawn spacecraft. The space probe only recently began circling about the huge asteroid in July after a four year interplanetary journey.

Vesta is a heavily battered and rugged world that’s littered with craters and mysterious grooves and troughs. It is the second most massive object in the Asteroid Belt and formed at nearly the same time as the Solar System some 4.5 Billion years ago.

“The framing cameras show Vesta is one of the most colorful objects in the solar system,” said 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.”

Scientists presented the new images and findings from Dawn at the American Geophysical Union meeting this week in San Francisco.

Dawn is the first man-made probe to go into orbit around Vesta.

Comparative View of Terrains on Vesta - Oppia Crater
This image of Oppia Crater combines two separate views of the giant asteroid Vesta obtained by Dawn's framing camera. The far-left image uses near-infrared filters where red is used to represent 750 nanometers, green represents 920 nanometers and blue represents 980 nanometers. The image on the right is an image with colors assigned by scientists, representing different rock or mineral types on Vesta. The data reveal a world of many varied, well-separated layers and ingredients. The reddish color suggests a steep visible spectral slope, and areas of fresh landslides in the inner walls of the crater show deeper green colors. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“Vesta is a transitional body between a small asteroid and a planet and is unique in many ways,” Reddy said. “We do not know why Vesta is so special.”

Although many asteroids look like potatoes, Reddy said Vesta reminds him more of an avocado.

Asteroid Vesta is revealed as a ‘rainbow-colored palette’ in a new image mosaic (above) showcasing this alien world of highly diverse rock and mineral types of many well-separated layers and ingredients.

Researchers assigned different colors as markers to represent different rock compositions in the stunning new mosaic of the asteroid’s southern hemisphere.

The green areas in the mosaic suggest the presence of the iron-rich mineral pyroxene or large-sized particles, according to Eleonora Ammannito, from the Visible and Infrared (VIR) spectrometer team of the Italian Space Agency. The ragged surface materials are a mixture of rapidly cooled surface rocks and a deeper layer that cooled more slowly.

What could the other colors represent?

“The surface is very much consistent with the variability in the HED (Howardite-Eucritic-Diogenite) meteorites,” Prof. Chris Russell, Dawn Principal Investigator (UCLA) told Universe Today in an exclusive interview.

“There is Diogenite in varying amounts.”

“The different colors represent in part different ratios of Diogenite to Eucritic material. Other color variation may be due to particle sizes and to aging,” Russell told me.

No evidence of volcanic materials has been detected so far, said David Williams, Dawn participating scientist of Arizona State University, Tucson.

Fresh Impact Craters on Asteroid Vesta
The fresh impact craters in this view are located in the south polar region, which has been partly covered by landslides from the adjacent crater. This would suggest that a layer of loose material covers the Vesta surface. This image combines two separate views of the giant asteroid Vesta obtained by Dawn’s framing camera. The far-left image uses near-infrared filters where red is used to represent 750 nanometers, green represents 920 nanometers and blue represents 980 nanometers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Before Dawn arrived, researchers expected to observe indications of volcanic activity. So, the lack of findings of volcanism is somewhat surprising. Williams said that past volcanic activity may be masked due to the extensive battering and resultant mixing of the surface regolith.

“More than 10,000 high resolution images of Vesta have been snapped to date by the framing cameras on Dawn,” Dr. Marc Rayman told Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

Dawn will spend a year in orbit at Vesta and investigate the asteroid at different altitudes with three on-board science instruments from the US, Germany and Italy.

The probe will soon finish spiraling down to her lowest mapping orbit known as LAMO (Low Altitude Mapping Orbit), approximately 130 miles (210 kilometers) above Vesta’s surface.

“Dawn remains on course to begin its scientific observations in LAMO on December 12,” said Rayman.

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. The Visible and Infrared Mapping camera was provided by the Italian Space Agency.

In July 2012, Rayman and the engineering team will fire up Dawn’s ion propulsion system, break orbit and head to Ceres, the largest asteroid and what a number of scientists consider to be a planet itself.

Ceres is believed to harbor thick caches of water ice and therefore could be a potential candidate for life.

Southern Hemisphere of Vesta -Rheasilvia and Older Basin
Colorized shaded-relief map showing location of 375-kilometer-wide Older impact basin that is overlapping with the more recent 500 km (300 mi) wide Rheasilvia impact structure at asteroid Vesta’s South Pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Asteroid Vesta from Dawn - Exquisite Clarity from a formerly Fuzzy Blob
NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 24, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). Before Dawn, Vesta was just a fuzzy blob in the most powerful telescopes. Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, and will spend a year orbiting the body before firing up the ion propulsion system to break orbit and speed to Ceres, the largest Asteroid. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:

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 Surprise 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
Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin
First Ever Vesta Vistas from Orbit – in 2D and 3D
Dawn Exceeds Wildest Expectations as First Ever Spacecraft to Orbit a Protoplanet – Vesta

Vrooming over Vivid Vestan Vistas in Vibrant 3 D – Video

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It’s time to put on your 3-D glasses and go soaring all over the giant asteroid Vesta – thanks to the superlative efforts of Dawn’s international science team.

Now you can enjoy vivid ‘Vestan Vistas’ like you’ve never ever seen before in a vibrant 3 D video newly created by Dawn team member Ralf Jaumann, of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin, Germany – see below.

To fully appreciate the rough and tumble of the totally foreign and matchless world that is Vesta, you’ll absolutely have to haul out your trusty red-cyan (or red-blue) 3 D anaglyph glasses.

Then hold on, as you glide along for a global gaze of mysteriously gorgeous equatorial groves ground out by a gargantuan gong, eons ago.

Along the way you’ll see an alien ‘Snowman’ and the remnants of the missing South Pole, including the impressive Rheasilvia impact basin – named after a Vestal virgin – and the massive mountain some 16 miles (25 kilometers) high, or more than twice the height of Mt. Everest.


Video Caption: This 3-D video incorporates images from the framing camera instrument aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from July to August 2011. The images were obtained as Dawn approached Vesta and circled the giant asteroid during the mission’s survey orbit phase at an altitude of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers). To view this video in 3-D use red-green, or red-blue, glasses (left eye: red; right eye: green/blue). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“If you want to know what it’s like to explore a new world like Vesta, this new video gives everyone a chance to see it for themselves,” Jaumann said. “Scientists are poring over these images to learn more about how the craters, hills, grooves and troughs we see were created.”

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is humanity’s first probe to investigate Vesta, the second most massive body in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.


Video caption: 2 D rotation movie of Vesta. Compare the 2 D movie to the new 3 D movie. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Indeed Dawn was just honored by Popular Science magazine and recognized as one of three NASA Planetary Science missions to earn a ‘Best of What’s New in 2011’ for innovation in the aviation and space category – along with the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and MESSENGER Mercury orbiter.

Asteroid Vesta and Mysterious Equatorial Grooves - from Dawn Orbiter
This full view of the giant asteroid Vesta was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on July 24, 2011, at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). This view shows impact craters of various sizes and mysterious grooves parallel to the equator. The resolution of this image is about 500 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The images in the 3 D video were snapped between July and August 2011 as Dawn completed the final approach to Vesta, achieved orbit in July 2011 and circled overhead during the mission’s initial survey orbit phase at an altitude of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) in August.

How was the 3 D movie created?

“The Dawn team consists of a bunch of talented people. One of those talented people is Ralf Jaumann, Dawn co-Investigator from the DLR in Berlin,” Prof. Chris Russell, Dawn Principal Investigator, of UCLA, told Universe Today.

“Jaumann and the team behind him have stitched together the mosaics we see and they have made shape models of the surface. They are also skilled communicators and have been heroes in getting the Dawn Image of the Day together. I owe them much thanks and recognition for their efforts.”

“They wanted to make and release to the public an anaglyph of the rotating Vesta to share with everyone the virtual thrill of flying over this alien world.”

“I hope everyone who follows the progress of Dawn will enjoy this movie as much as I do.”

“It is just amazing to an old-time space explorer as myself that we can now make planetary exploration so accessible to people all over our globe in their own homes and so soon after we have received the images,” Russell told me.

3 D of the ‘Snowman' Crater
This anaglyph image shows the topography of Vesta's three craters, informally named the "Snowman," obtained by the framing camera instrument aboard Dawn on August 6, 2011. The camera has a resolution of about 260 meters per pixel.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn is now spiraling down to her lowest mapping orbit known as LAMO (Low Altitude Mapping Orbit), barely 130 miles (210 kilometers) above Vesta’s surface.

“Dawn remains on course and on schedule to begin its scientific observations in LAMO on December 12,” says Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s Chief Engineer from the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.

“The focus of LAMO investigations will be on making a census of the atomic constituents with its gamma ray and neutron sensors and on mapping the gravity field in order to determine the interior structure of this protoplanet.”

“Today, Dawn is at about 245 km altitude,” Rayman told Universe Today.

The 3 D video is narrated by Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator at JPL.

“Dawn’s data thus far have revealed the rugged topography and complex textures of the surface of Vesta, as can be seen in this video”.

“Soon, we’ll add other pieces of the puzzle such as the chemical composition, interior structure, and geologic age to be able to write the history of this remnant protoplanet and its place in the early solar system.”

3 D Image of Vesta's South Polar Region
This anaglyph image of the south polar region was taken on July 9, 2011 by the framing camera instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Each pixel in this image corresponds to roughly 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers). The anaglyph image shows the rough topography in the south polar area, the large mountain, impact craters, grooves, and steep scarps in three dimensions.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:

NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Dawn Discovers Surprise 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
Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin
First Ever Vesta Vistas from Orbit – in 2D and 3D
Dawn Exceeds Wildest Expectations as First Ever Spacecraft to Orbit a Protoplanet – Vesta

NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER

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A trio of NASA’s Planetary Science mission’s – Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Dawn and MESSENGER – has been honored by Popular Science magazine and selected as ‘Best of What’s New’ in innovation in 2011 in the aviation and space category.

The Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory was just launched to the Red Planet on Saturday, Nov. 26 and will search for signs of life while traversing around layered terrain at Gale Crater. Dawn just arrived in orbit around Asteroid Vesta in July 2011. MESSENGER achieved orbit around Planet Mercury in March 2011.

Several of the top mission scientists and engineers provided exclusive comments about the Popular Science recognitions to Universe Today – below.

“Of course we are all very pleased by this selection,” Prof. Chris Russell, Dawn Principal Investigator, of UCLA, told Universe Today.


Dawn is the first mission ever to specifically investigate the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter and will orbit both Vesta and Ceres – a feat enabled solely thanks to the revolutionary ion propulsion system.

“At the same time I must admit we are also not humble about it. Dawn is truly an amazing mission. A low cost mission, using NASA’s advanced technology to enormous scientific advantage. It is really, really a great mission,” Russell told me.

Vesta is the second most massive asteroid and Dawn’s discoveries of a surprisingly dichotomous and battered world has vastly exceeded the team’s expectations.

Asteroid Vesta from Dawn - Exquisite Clarity from a formerly Fuzzy Blob
NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 24, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). Before Dawn, Vesta was just a fuzzy blob in the most powerful telescopes. Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, and will spend a year orbiting the body before firing up the ion propulsion system to break orbit and speed to Ceres, the largest Asteroid. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“Dawn is NASA at its best: ambitious, exciting, innovative, and productive,” Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s Chief Engineer from the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., told Universe Today.

“This interplanetary spaceship is exploring uncharted worlds. I’m delighted Popular Science recognizes what a marvelous undertaking this is.”

JPL manages both Dawn and Mars Science Laboratory for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

Dawn is an international science mission. The partners include the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute.

“Very cool!”, John Grotzinger, the Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist of the California Institute of Technology, told Universe Today.

“MSL packs the most bang for the buck yet sent to Mars.”

Last View of Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC.
Curiosity just before Encapsulation for 8 month long interplanetary Martian Journey and touchdown inside Gale Crater. Credit: Ken Kremer

Curiosity is using an unprecedented precision landing system to touch down inside the 154 km (96 miile) wide Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. The crater exhibits exposures of phyllosilicates and other minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life and is dominated by a towering mountain.

“10 instruments all aimed at a mountain higher than any in the lower 48 states, whose stratigraphic layering records the major breakpoints in the history of Mars’ environments over likely hundreds of millions of years, including those that may have been habitable for life.”

“It’s like a trip down the Grand Canyon 150 years ago, with the same sense of adventure, but with a lot of high tech equipment,” Grotzinger told me.

MSL also has an international team of over 250 science investigators and instruments spread across the US, Europe and Russia.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover soars to Mars atop an Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

MESSENGER is the first probe to orbit Mercury and the one year primary mission was recently extended by NASA.

Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, leads the MESSENGER mission as principal investigator. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory built and operates the MESSENGER spacecraft for NASA.

“Planetary has 3 missions there… Dawn, MESSENGER, and MSL,” Jim Green proudly said to Universe Today regarding the Popular Science magazine awards. Green is the director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington

“Three out of 10 [awards] is a tremendous recognition of the fact that each one of our planetary missions goes to a different environment and takes on new and unique measurements providing us new discoveries and constantly changes how we view nature, ourselves, and our place in the universe.”

The First Solar Day
After its first Mercury solar day (176 Earth days) in orbit, MESSENGER has nearly completed two of its main global imaging campaigns: a monochrome map at 250 m/pixel and an eight-color, 1-km/pixel color map. Apart from small gaps, which will be filled in during the next solar day, these global maps now provide uniform lighting conditions ideal for assessing the form of Mercury’s surface features as well as the color and compositional variations across the planet. The orthographic views seen here, centered at 75° E longitude, are each mosaics of thousands of individual images. At right, images taken through the wide-angle camera filters at 1000, 750, and 430 nm wavelength are displayed in red, green, and blue, respectively.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Read more about the Popular Science citations and awards here
.
Read continuing features about Curiosity, Dawn and MESSENGER by Ken Kremer starting here:

Curiosity Mars Rover Launch Gallery – Photos and Videos
Curiosity Majestically Blasts off on ‘Mars Trek’ to ascertain ‘Are We Alone?
Dawn Discovers Surprise 2nd Giant South Pole Impact Basin at Strikingly Dichotomous Vesta
Amazing New View of the Mt. Everest of Vesta
MESSENGER Unveiling Mercurys Hidden Secrets

Dawn Discovers Surprise 2nd Giant South Pole Impact Basin at Strikingly Dichotomous Vesta

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Scientists leading NASA’s Dawn mission have discovered a 2nd giant impact basin at the south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta, which has been unveiled as a surprisingly “dichotomous” and alien world. Furthermore, the cosmic collisions that produced these two basins shuddered through the interior and created vast Vestan troughs, a Dawn scientist told Universe Today.

The newly discovered impact basin, nicknamed ‘Older Basin’, is actually significantly older in age compared to the initially discovered South Pole basin feature named ‘Rheasilvia’ – perhaps by more than a billion years. And that is just one of the many unexplained mysteries yet to be reconciled by the team as they begin to sift through the millions of bits of new data streaming back daily to Earth.

Scientists speculate that ‘Older Basin’ is on the order of 3.8 Billion years old, whereas ‘Rheasilvia’ might be as young as about 2.5 Billion years, but those are just tentative estimates at this time and subject to change. Measurements so far indicate Rheasilvia is composed of basaltic material.

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

“We found many surprising things at Vesta, which is quite unique and the results have exceeded our expectations”, said Dr. Carol Raymond, Dawn deputy principal investigator, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Researchers presented the latest findings from Dawn’s initial science mapping orbit at a news briefing at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis, Minn., on Oct. 13.

The team considers Vesta to be the smallest terrestrial planet.

Since achieving orbit in July, Dawn’s Framing Cameras (FC) have imaged most of Vesta at about 250 meter resolution and the Visible and Infrared mapping spectrometer(VIR) at about 700 meter resolution. The measurements were collected at the survey orbit altitude of 2700 km. Before Dawn, Vesta was just a fuzzy blob in humankind’s most powerful telescopes.

Vesta from Hubble (top) as a fuzzy blob and from Dawn in orbit (bottom) in crystal clear high resolution.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“There is a global dichotomy on Vesta and a fundamental difference between the northern and southern hemispheres”, said Raymond. “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.”

“There is also a tremendous and surprising diversity of surface color and morphology. The south is consistent with basaltic lithology and the north with impacts. We are trying to make sense of the data and will integrate that with the high resolution observations we are now collecting.”

Indeed Vesta’s completely unique and striking dichotomy can be directly traced back to the basins which were formed by ancient cataclysmic impacts resulting in shockwaves that fundamentally altered the surface and caused the formation of the long troughs that ring Vesta at numerous latitudes.

“The troughs extend across 240 degrees of longitude,” said Debra Buczkowski, Dawn participating scientist, of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, Laurel, Md. “Their formation can be tied back to the two basins at the South Pole.”

Asteroid Vesta and Equatorial Grooves
This full view of the giant asteroid Vesta was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, as part of a rotation characterization sequence on July 24, 2011, at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). A rotation characterization sequence helps the scientists and engineers by giving an initial overview of the character of the surface as Vesta rotated underneath the spacecraft. This view of Vesta shows impact craters of various sizes and grooves parallel to the equator. The resolution of this image is about 500 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

In an exclusive follow up interview with Universe Today, Raymond said “We believe that the troughs formed as a direct result of the impacts,” said “The two sets of troughs are associated with the two large basins [Rheasilvia and Older Basin].”

“The key piece of evidence presented was that the set of troughs in the northern hemisphere, that look older (more degraded) are circumferential to the older impact basin,” Raymond told me.

“The equatorial set are circumferential to Rheasilvia. That Rheasilvia’s age appears in places to be much younger is at odds with the age of the equatorial troughs. An explanation for that could be resurfacing by younger mass wasting features (landslides, slumps). We will be working on clarifying all these relationships in the coming months with the higher resolution HAMO (High Altitude Mapping Orbit) data.”

Dawn has gradually spiraled down closer to Vesta using her exotic ion thrusters and began the HAMO mapping campaign on Sept. 29.

Surface features are dated by crater counting methodology.

“Preliminary crater counting age dates for the equatorial trough region yields a very old age (3.8 Billion years). So there is a discrepancy between the apparent younger age for the Rheasilvia basin and the old age for the troughs. These could be reconciled if Rheasilvia is also 3.8 Billion years old but the surface has been modified by slumping or other processes,” Raymond elaborated.

Time will tell as further data is analyzed.

Dawn launch on September 27, 2007 by a Delta II Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

“Vesta is full of surprises, no more so than at the South Pole,” said Paul Schenk at the GSA briefing. Schenk is a Dawn participating scientist of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, Texas.

The ‘Rheasilvia’ basin was initially discovered in images of Vesta taken a decade ago by the Hubble Space Telescope which revealed it as a gaping hole in the southern hemisphere. But it wasn’t until Dawn entered orbit on July 16, 2011 after a nearly four year interplanetary journey that Earthlings got their first close up look at the mysterious polar feature and can now scrutinize it in detail to elucidate its true nature.

“The South Pole [Rheasilvia] basin is a roughly circular, impact structure and a deep depression dominated by a large central mound,” said Schenk. “It shows sharp scarps, smooth areas, landslide deposits, debris flows. It’s about 475 km in diameter and one of the deepest (ca. 20 -25 km) impact craters in the solar system.”

The central peak is an enormous mountain, about 22 km high and 180 km across- one of the biggest in the solar system. “It’s comparable in some ways to Olympus Mons on Mars,” Schenk stated.

“We were quite surprised to see a second basin in the mapping data outside of Rheasilvia. This was unexpected. It’s called ‘Older Basin’ for now.”

‘Older Basin’ is about 375 km in diameter. They overlap at the place where Rheasilvia has a missing rim.

“These basins are interesting because we believe Vesta is the source of a large number of meteorites, the HED meteorites that have a spread of ages,” Schenk explained.

Images showing key components of Rheasilvia impact basin on Vesta in high resolution ,referred to Shaded-relief topographic map. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Multiple large impacts over time may explain the source of the HED (Howardite, Eucrite and Diogenite) meteorites.

“We did expect large impacts on Vesta, likely associated with the late heavy bombardment recognized in the lunar impact record,” Raymond told Universe Today. “The surprising element is that the two apparently largest impacts – keeping in mind that other larger impact basins may be lurking under the regolith – are overlapping.”

Dawn’s VIR spectrometer has detected pyroxene bands covering Vesta’s surface, which is indicative of typical basaltic material, said Federico Tosi, a VIR team member of the Italian Space Agency, Rome. “Vesta has diverse rock types on its surface.”

“VIR measured surface temperatures from 220K to 270 K at the 5 micron wavelength. The illuminated areas are warmer.”

So far there is no clear indication of olivine which would be a marker for seeing Vesta’s mantle, Tossi elaborated.

The VIR spectrometer combines images, spectral information and temperature that will allow researchers to evaluate the nature, composition and evolutionary forces that shaped Vesta’s surface.

The team is absolutely thrilled to see a complicated geologic record that’s been preserved for study with lots of apparent surface layering and surprisingly strong and complex structural features with a large range of color and brightness.

Stay tuned for a year of Vestan delights !

Asteroid Vesta from Dawn
South Pole Rheasilvia basin is at lower right. NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 24, 2011 from a distance of about 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 16, and will spend a year orbiting the body.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Read Ken’s continuing features about Dawn and Vesta starting here:
Amazing New View of the Mt. Everest of Vesta
Dramatic 3 D Imagery Showcases Vesta’s Pockmarked, Mountainous and Groovy Terrain
Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin
First Ever Vesta Vistas from Orbit – in 2D and 3D
Dawn Exceeds Wildest Expectations as First Ever Spacecraft to Orbit a Protoplanet – Vesta

Dramatic 3 D Imagery Showcases Vesta’s Pockmarked, Mountainous and Groovy Terrain

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Try not to plummet off a steep crater cliff or be buried under a landslide while gazing at the irresistibly alluring curves of beautiful Rheasilvia – the mythical mother of Romulus and Remus – whose found a new home at the South Pole of the giant Asteroid Vesta.

3 D is undoubtedly the best way to maximize your pleasure. So whip out your cool red-cyan anaglyph glasses to enhance your viewing experience of Rheasilvia, the Snowman and more – and maximize your enjoyment of this new 3 D collection showcasing the heavily cratered, pockmarked, mountainous and groovy terrain replete at Vesta.

3D Details of Wave-Like Terrain in the South Pole of Vesta
This image was obtained by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from an orbit of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) above the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta. Topography in the area surrounding Vesta's south pole area shows impact craters, ridges and grooves. These images in 3D provide scientists with a realistic impression of the solid surface of the celestial body.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Can you find the location of the 3 D image above in the 2 D South Pole image below?

Scientists and mortals have been fascinated by the enormous impact crater Rheasilvia and central mountain unveiled in detail by NASA’s Dawn Asteroid Orbiter recently arrived at Vesta, the 2nd most massive object in the main asteroid belt. Ceres is the largest object and will be Dawn’s next orbital target in 2015 after departing Vesta in 2012.

3D - A Big Mountain at Asteroid Vesta’s South Pole
Scientists were fascinated by this enormous mound inside a big circular depression at the south pole- dubbed Rheasilvia. This stereo image was recorded from an altitude of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) above the surface and shows the structure of the mountain, displayed in the right half of this 3D image. The base of the mountain has a diameter of about 125 miles (200 kilometers), and its altitude above the surroundings is about 9 miles (15 kilometers). The vicinity of the peak of the mountain shows landslides that occurred when material from the flanks of the mountain were slipping down. Also visible are tectonic structures from tension in Vesta's crust. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Vesta is the smallest terrestrial planet in our Solar System”, said Chris Russell in an interview with Universe Today. “We do not have a good analog to Vesta anywhere else in the Solar System.”

And the best is yet to come. In a few days, Dawn begins snapping images from a much lower altitude at the HAMO mapping orbit of ca. 685 km vs the initial survey orbit of ca, 2700 km. where most of these images were taken.

Can you find the location of the 3 D South Pole images above in the 2 D South Pole image below?

Topography of Densely Cratered Deformed Terrain
This 3 D anaglyph image shows the topography of Vesta's densely cratered terrain obtained by the framing camera instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft on August 6, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Anaglyph of the ‘Snowman' Crater. This anaglyph image shows the topography of Vesta's three craters, informally named the "Snowman," obtained by the framing camera instrument aboard Dawn on August 6, 2011. The camera has a resolution of about 260 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Vesta's Ancient, Cratered Surface in 3D
This image of the giant asteroid Vesta obtained by NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows the surface of the asteroid from an orbit of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) above the surface. Numerous impact craters illustrate the asteroid's violent youth. By counting craters on distinct geological surfaces scientists can deduce relative ages of the asteroid's surface. This 3D view provides scientists the opportunity to learn more about the morphology of craters on asteroids and physical properties of the material at Vesta's surface.. Image resolution is about 260 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Viewing the South Pole of Vesta and Rheasilvia Impact Basin
This image obtained by Dawns framing camera shows the south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta. Scientists are discussing whether the Rheasilvia circular structure that covers most of this image originated by a collision with another asteroid, or by internal processes early in the asteroid's history. Images in higher resolution from Dawn's next lowered orbit might help answer that question. The image was recorded from a distance of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers). The image resolution is about 260 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Rhea Silvia, torso from the amphitheatre at Cartagena in Spain that was rediscovered in 1988. Rhea Silvia was the mother of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. Source: Wikipedia

Read Ken’s continuing features about Dawn and Vesta

Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin
First Ever Vesta Vistas from Orbit – in 2D and 3D
Dawn Exceeds Wildest Expectations as First Ever Spacecraft to Orbit a Protoplanet – Vesta
Dawn Closing in on Asteroid Vesta as Views Exceed Hubble
Dawn Begins Approach to Asteroid Vesta and Snaps First Images
Revolutionary Dawn Closing in on Asteroid Vesta with Opened Eyes