Mysterious Bright Spots and Pyramidal Mountain Star in Dawn’s Daunting Flyover of Ceres: Video

Video caption: Take a tour of weird Ceres! Visit a 2-mile-deep crater and a 4-mile-tall mountain in the video narrated by mission director Marc Rayman. Get your red/blue glasses ready for the finale – a global view of the dwarf planet in 3D. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI/PSI

Mysterious bright spots and a pyramidal shaped mountain star in a daunting new flyover video of dwarf planet Ceres created from imagery gathered by NASA’s history making Dawn mission – the first ever to visit any dwarf planet which simultaneously ranks as the largest world in the main asteroid belt residing between Mars and Jupiter.

Ceres was nothing more than a fuzzy blob to humankinds most powerful telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), until the probe swooped in this year and achieved orbit on March 6, 2015.

The newly released, stunning video takes takes you on a tour like none before for a global cruise over the most fascinating features on Ceres – including the 2-mile-deep (4-km-deep) crater dubbed Occator and a towering 4-mile-tall (6 kilometer-tall) mountain as tall as any in North America.

The spectacular flyover animation was generated from high resolution images taken by Dawn’s framing camera during April and May and is narrated by Marc Rayman, Dawn Chief Engineer and Mission Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The video concludes with a 3D view, so you’ll need to whip out your handy red/blue glasses for the finale – a global view of the dwarf planet in 3D.

From the orbital altitude at that time ranging from about 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) to 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers), the highest-resolution regions on Ceres have a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel.

Pockmarked Ceres is an alien world unlike any other in our solar system, replete with unexplained bright spots and craters of many sizes, large and small.

Occatur has captured popular fascination world-wide because the 60 miles (90 kilometers) diameter crater is rife with a host of the bodies brightest spots and whose nature remains elusive to this day, nearly half a year after Dawn arrived in orbit this past spring.

“Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) and 7.5 years, Dawn calls Ceres, home,” says Rayman.

The crater is named after the Roman agriculture deity of harrowing, a method of pulverizing and smoothing soil.

Dawn is an international science mission managed by NASA and equipped with a trio of science instruments from the US, Germany and Italy. The framing camera was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR), provided by Italy is an imaging spectrometer that examines Ceres in visible and infrared light.

Dawn’s science team is using the instruments to investigate the light reflecting from Occator at different wavelengths.

From a distance, the crater appeared to be home to a duo of bright spots that looked like a pair of eyes. As Dawn moves ever closer, they became more resolved and now are split into dozens of smaller bright spots.

Global view of Ceres uses data collected by NASA's Dawn mission in April and May 2015.  The highest-resolution parts of the map have a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI/PSI
Global view of Ceres uses data collected by NASA’s Dawn mission in April and May 2015. The highest-resolution parts of the map have a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI/PSI

Although some early speculation centered on the spots possibly being consistent with water ice or salts, newly gathered data “has not found evidence that is consistent with ice. The spots’ albedo -¬ a measure of the amount of light reflected -¬ is also lower than predictions for concentrations of ice at the surface,” according to the scientists.

“The science team is continuing to evaluate the data and discuss theories about these bright spots at Occator,” said Chris Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a statement.

“We are now comparing the spots with the reflective properties of salt, but we are still puzzled by their source. We look forward to new, higher-resolution data from the mission’s next orbital phase.”
Occator lies in Ceres northern hemisphere.

The huge pyramidal mountain lies farther to the southeast of Occator – at 11 degrees south, 316 degrees east.

Based on the latest calculations, the mountain sits about 4 miles (6 kilometers) high, with respect to the surface around it. That make it roughly the same elevation as Mount McKinley in Denali National Park, Alaska, the highest point in North America.

Among the highest features seen on Ceres so far is a mountain about 4 miles (6 kilometers) high, which is roughly the elevation of Mount McKinley in Alaska's Denali National Park.  Vertical relief has been exaggerated by a factor of five to help understand the topography. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI
Among the highest features seen on Ceres so far is a mountain about 4 miles (6 kilometers) high, which is roughly the elevation of Mount McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Vertical relief has been exaggerated by a factor of five to help understand the topography. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/LPI

The Texas-sized world is slightly smaller than previously thought. Based on new measurements from Dawn, Ceres’ average diameter to 584 miles (940 kilometers), compared to earlier estimates of 590 miles (950 kilometers).

Dawn made history in March when it simultaneously became the first probe from Earth to reach Ceres as well as the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies.

It had previously visited Vesta. After achieving orbit in July 2011, Dawn became the first spacecraft from Earth to orbit a body in the main Asteroid Belt.

In sharp contrast to rocky Vesta, Ceres is an icy world.

Scientists believe that Ceres may harbor an ocean of subsurface liquid water as large in volume as the oceans of Earth below a thick icy mantle despite its small size – and thus could be a potential abode for life. Overall Ceres is estimated to be about 25% water by mass.

“We really appreciate the interest in our mission and hope they are as excited as we have been about these scientific surprises,” Russell told Universe Today.

“Since we are only just beginning our investigation, I expect that there will be more surprises. So please stick with us!”

As Dawn spirals down to a lower orbit of about 1,200 miles (1,900 km) above Ceres (and then even lower) using its ion engines, new answers and new mysteries are sure to be forthcoming.

“There are many other features that we are interested in studying further,” said Dawn science team member David O’Brien, with the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona.

“These include a pair of large impact basins called Urvara and Yalode in the southern hemisphere, which have numerous cracks extending away from them, and the large impact basin Kerwan, whose center is just south of the equator.”

The mission is expected to last until at least June 2016 depending upon fuel reserves.

Dawn was launched on September 27, 2007 by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II Heavy rocket from Space Launch Complex-17B (SLC-17B) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Dawn Does Dramatic Fly Over of Ceres, Enters Lower Mapping Orbit: Video

Video caption: This new video animation of Ceres was created from images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft at altitudes of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) and 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) away. Vertical dimension has been exaggerated by a factor of two and a star field added. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Scientists leading NASA’s Dawn mission to dwarf planet Ceres have just released a brand new animated video showing a dramatic fly over of the heavily cratered world featuring its mysterious bright spots whose exact origin and nature remain elusive.

Meanwhile, the venerable probe has just successfully entered its new and lower mapping orbit on June 3 from which researchers hope to glean hordes of new data to unravel the secrets of the bright spots and unlock the nature of Ceres origin and evolution.

Pockmarked Ceres is an alien world unlike any other in our solar system.

“Dawn completed the maneuvering to reach its second mapping orbit and stopped ion-thrusting on schedule. Since May 9, the spacecraft has reduced its orbital altitude from 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers) to 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers),” reported Marc Rayman, Dawn Chief Engineer/ Mission Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

“As Dawn flew 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) over Ceres’ north pole on June 5 that marked the beginning of the new mapping phase, and Dawn began taking photos and making other measurements on schedule.”

Each orbit of Dawn around Ceres at this second science mapping orbit lasts 3.1 days.

The new video was created by the research team based on observations of Ceres that were taken from Dawn’s initial mapping orbit, at an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), as well as the most recent navigational images taken from 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers), according to NASA.

It is based on data from over 80 images captured by Dawn’s framing cameras which were provided The German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany.

The images were used to provide a three-dimensional video view. The vertical dimension is exaggerated by a factor of two in the video.

“We used a three-dimensional terrain model that we had produced based on the images acquired so far,” said Dawn team member Ralf Jaumann of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), in Berlin.

“They will become increasingly detailed as the mission progresses — with each additional orbit bringing us closer to the surface.”

Imagery of the mysterious bright spots show them to seemingly be sheets of many spots of water ice, and not just single huge patches. The famous duo of ice spots are located inside the middle of a 57 miles (92 kilometers) wide crater situated in Ceres northern hemisphere.

Dawn is an international science mission managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. The trio of science instruments are from the US, Germany and Italy.

The framing camera was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

This view of Ceres was taken by Dawn spacecraft on May 23 and shows finer detail becoming visible on the dwarf planet. The spacecraft snapped the image at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) with a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
This view of Ceres was taken by Dawn spacecraft on May 23 and shows finer detail becoming visible on the dwarf planet. The spacecraft snapped the image at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) with a resolution of 1,600 feet (480 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn will spend most if June at this second mapping orbit before firing up the ion engines and spiraling yet lower for a mission expected to last until at least June 2016.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Dawn’s spiral descent from its first mapping orbit (RC3) to its second (survey). The two mapping orbits are shown in green. The color of Dawn’s trajectory progresses through the spectrum from blue, when it began ion-thrusting on May 9, to red, when ion-thrusting concludes on June 3. The red dashed sections show where Dawn is coasting, mostly for telecommunications. The first two coast periods include OpNav 8 and 9. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Dawn’s spiral descent from its first mapping orbit (RC3) to its second (survey). The two mapping orbits are shown in green. The color of Dawn’s trajectory progresses through the spectrum from blue, when it began ion-thrusting on May 9, to red, when ion-thrusting concludes on June 3. The red dashed sections show where Dawn is coasting, mostly for telecommunications. The first two coast periods include OpNav 8 and 9. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What Is The Difference Between Asteroids and Meteorites?

Asteroids, meteors, and meteorites … It might be fair to say these rocks from space inspire both wonder and fear among us Earthlings. But knowing a bit more about each of them and how they differ may eliminate some potential misgivings. While all these rocks originate from space, they have different names depending their location — i.e. whether they are hurtling through space or hurtling through the atmosphere and impacting Earth’s surface.

In simplest terms here are the definitions:

Asteroid: a large rocky body in space, in orbit around the Sun.

Meteoroid: much smaller rocks or particles in orbit around the Sun.

Meteor: If a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes, it becomes a meteor, which is often called a shooting star.

Meteorite: If a small asteroid or large meteoroid survives its fiery passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and lands on Earth’s surface, it is then called a meteorite.

Another related term is bolide, which is a very bright meteor that often explodes in the atmosphere. This can also be called a fireball.

Let’s look at each in more detail:

Asteroids

An artists impression of an asteroid belt. Credit: NASA
An artists impression of an asteroid belt. Credit: NASA

Asteroids are found mainly in the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter. Sometimes their orbits get perturbed or altered and some asteroids end up coming closer to the Sun, and therefore closer to Earth. In addition to the asteroid belt, however, there have been recent discussions among astronomers about the potential existence of large number asteroids in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. You can read a paper about this concept here, and a good article discussing the topic here.

The asteroid Vesta as seen by the Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA
The asteroid Vesta as seen by the Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA

Asteroids are sometimes referred to as minor planets or planetoids, but in general, they are rocky bodies that do not have an atmosphere. However, a few have their own moons. Our Solar System contains millions of asteroids, many of which are thought to be the shattered remnants of planetesimals – bodies within the young Sun’s solar nebula that never grew large enough to become planets.

The size of what classifies as an asteroid is not extremely well defined, as an asteroid can range from a few meters wide – like a boulder — to objects that are hundreds of kilometers in diameter. The largest asteroid is asteroid Ceres at about 952 km (592 miles) in diameter, and Ceres is so large that it is also categorized as a dwarf planet.

Most asteroids are made of rock, but as we explore and learn more about them we know that some are composed of metal, mostly nickel and iron. According to NASA, a small portion of the asteroid population may be burned-out comets whose ices have evaporated away and been blown off into space. Recently, astronomers have discovered some asteroids that mimic comets in that gas and dust are emanating from them, and as we mentioned earlier, there appears to be a large number of bodies with asteroid-like compositions but comet-like orbits.

How Often Do Asteroids Hit Earth?

Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.
Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.

While we know that some asteroids pass very close to Earth’s orbit around the Sun, we’ve been lucky in the history of humanity that we haven’t had a large asteroid hit Earth in the past several thousand years. It wasn’t until satellite imagery of Earth became widely available that scientists were able to see evidence of past asteroid impacts.

One of the more famous impact craters on Earth is Meteor Crater in Arizona in the US, which was made by an impact about 50,000 years ago. But there are about 175 known impact around the world – a few are quite large, like Vredefort Crater in South Africa which has an estimated radius of 190 kilometers (118 miles), making it the world’s largest known impact structure on Earth. Another notable impact site is off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and is believed to be a record of the event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. You can see images of some of the most impressive Earth impact craters here.

These days, asteroid impacts are less of a threat. NASA estimates that about once a year an automobile-sized asteroid enters Earth’s atmosphere, creates an impressive fireball and disintegrates before ever reaching the surface. Studies of Earth’s history indicate that about once every 5,000 years or so on average an object the size of a football field hits Earth and causes significant damage. Once every few million years on average an object large enough to cause regional or global disaster impacts Earth. You can find more information about the frequency of impacts in this article from NASA.


Meteors, Meteoroids and Bolides

A bright meteor from September 21, 1994. Credit: John Chumack.
A bright meteor from September 21, 1994. Credit: John Chumack.

Space debris smaller than an asteroid are called meteoroids. A meteoroid is a piece of interplanetary matter that is smaller than an asteroid and frequently are only millimeters in size. Most meteoroids that enter the Earth’s atmosphere are so small that they vaporize completely and never reach the planet’s surface. When they burn up during their descent, they create a beautiful trail of light known as a meteor, sometimes called a shooting star.

Mostly these are harmless, but larger meteors that explode in the atmosphere – sometimes called bolides — can create shockwaves, which can cause problems. In February 2013 a meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia shattered windows with its air blast. This meteoroid or bolide was estimated to be 18 meters (59 feet) in diameter. In 1908, a rocky meteoroid less than 100 meters in diameter is believed to have entered the atmosphere over the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908 and the resulting shockwave knocked down trees for hundreds of square kilometers

How often is Earth hit by meteroids?

Chelyabinsk fireball recorded by a dashcam from Kamensk-Uralsky north of Chelyabinsk where it was still dawn.
Chelyabinsk fireball recorded by a dashcam from Kamensk-Uralsky north of Chelyabinsk where it was still dawn.

Because of the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013, astronomers have acquired more information about the frequency of larger meteors that hit Earth, and there is now a growing consensus that the Earth gets hit by bigger space rocks more often than we previously thought. You can read more about that concept here.

This video from the B612 Foundation shows a visualization of the location of 26 space rocks that hit Earth between 2000 and 2013, each releasing energy equivalent to some of our most powerful nuclear weapons. The B612 foundation says that a Hiroshima-scale asteroid explosion happens in our atmosphere on average once a year, but many are not detected because they explode high in the atmosphere, or because most of the Earth’s surface is water and even a large percentage of land is fairly uninhabited by humans.

Estimates vary of how much cosmic dust and meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere each day, but range anywhere from 5 to 300 metric tons. Satellite observations suggest that 100-300 metric tons of cosmic dust enter the atmosphere each day. This figure comes from the rate of accumulation in polar ice cores and deep-sea sediments of rare elements linked to cosmic dust, such as iridium and osmium.

But other measurements – which includes meteor radar observations, laser observations and measurements by high altitude aircraft — indicate that the input could be as low as 5 metric ton per day. Read more about this here.

For a documented list of bolide events, you can check out this page from JPL.

Meteorite

A stunning slice of the Glorieta pallasite meteorite cut thin enough to allow light to shine through its many olivine crystals.  Credit: Mike Miller
A stunning slice of the Glorieta pallasite meteorite cut thin enough to allow light to shine through its many olivine crystals. Credit: Mike Miller

If any part of a meteoroid survives the fall through the atmosphere and lands on Earth, it is called a meteorite. Although the vast majority of meteorites are very small, their size can range from about a fraction of a gram (the size of a pebble) to 100 kilograms (220 lbs) or more (the size of a huge, life-destroying boulder). Meteorites smaller than 2mm are classified as micrometeorites.

Meteorites have traditionally been divided into three broad categories, depending on their structure, chemical and isotopic composition and mineralogy. Stony meteorites are rocks, mainly composed of silicate minerals; iron meteorites that are largely composed of metallic iron-nickel; and, stony-iron meteorites that contain large amounts of both metallic and rocky material.

Meteorites have also been found on the Moon and Mars and conversely, scientists have traced the origination of the meteorites found here on Earth to four other bodies: the Moon, Mars, the asteroid 4 Vesta, and the comet Wild 2. Meteorites are the source of a great deal of the knowledge that we have have about the composition of other celestial bodies.

How Often Do Meteorites Hit Earth?

On Feb. 28, 2009, Peter Jenniskens (SETI/NASA), finds his first 2008TC3 meteorite after an 18-mile long journey. "It was an incredible feeling," Jenniskens said. The African Nubian Desert meteorite of Oct 7, 2008 was the first asteroid whose impact with Earth was predicted while still in space approaching Earth. 2008TC3 and Chelyabinsk are part of the released data set. (Credit: NASA/SETI/P.Jenniskens)
On Feb. 28, 2009, Peter Jenniskens (SETI/NASA), finds his first 2008TC3 meteorite after an 18-mile long journey. “It was an incredible feeling,” Jenniskens said. The African Nubian Desert meteorite of Oct 7, 2008 was the first asteroid whose impact with Earth was predicted while still in space approaching Earth. 2008TC3 and Chelyabinsk are part of the released data set. (Credit: NASA/SETI/P.Jenniskens)

According to the Planetary Science Institute, it is estimated that probably 500 meteorites reach the surface of the Earth each year, but less than 10 are recovered. This is because most fall into water (oceans, seas or lakes) or land in remote areas of the Earth that are not accessible, or are just not seen to fall.

You can read more about meteorites that were found from the Chelyabinsk meteor here.

Summary

In short, the difference between asteroids and meteors all comes down to a question of location. Asteroids are always found in space. Once it enters an atmosphere, it becomes a meteor, and then a meteorite after it hits the ground. Each are made of the same basic materials – minerals and rock – and each originated in space. The main difference is where they are when they are being observed.

We have many great articles on the subject of asteroids and meteorites here at Universe Today, such as this general information article on asteroids, this article and infographic about the difference between comets, asteroids and meteors, and these articles that deal with Ceres and Vesta. And here are some recent articles about the Chelyabinsk meteor that landed in Russia, as well as a 2 billion-year old Martian meteorite that contains evidence of water on Mars.

There is some good information on a NASA page as well as some great information here on Universe Today and Astronomy Cast.

Sources:
JPL’s Near Earth Asteroid Office
Planetary Science Institute
NASA: Asteroids
NASA: Meteors

How Dense is the Asteroid Belt?

We’ve seen way too many science fiction episodes that show asteroid belts as dense fields of tumbling boulders. How dense is the asteroid belt, and how to spacecraft survive getting through them?

For the purposes of revenue, lazy storytelling, and whatever it is Zak Snyder tells himself to get out of bed in the morning, when it comes to asteroids, Science fiction and video games creators have done something of disservice to your perception of reality.

Take a fond trip down sci-fi memory lane, and think about the time someone, possibly you, has had to dogfight or navigate through yet another frakkin’ asteroid belt. Huge space rocks tumbling dangerously in space! Action! Adventure! Only the skilled pilot, with her trusty astromecha-doplis ship can maneuver through the dense cluster of space boulders, dodging this way and that, avoiding certain collision.

And then she shoots her pew pew laser breaking up larger asteroids up into smaller ones, possibly obliterating them entirely depending on the cg budget. Inevitably, there’s bobbing and weaving. Pursuit craft will clip their wings on asteroids, spinning off into nearby tango. Some will fly straight into a space boulder.

Finally you’ll thread the needle on a pair of asteroids and the last ship of the whatever they’re called clicky clacky mantis Zorak bug people will try and catch you, but he/it won’t be quite so lucky. Poetically getting squashed like… a… bug. Sackhoff for the win, pilot victorious.

Okay, you probably knew the laser part is totally fake. I mean, everybody knows you can’t hear sounds in space. Outside of Starbuck being awesome, is that at all realistic? And if so, how does NASA maneuver unmanned spacecraft through that boulder-strewn grand canyon death trap to reach the outer planets?

The asteroid belt is a vast region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Our collection of space rocks starts around 300 million kilometers from the Sun and ends around 500 million kilometers. The first asteroid, the dwarf planet Ceres which measures 950 km across, was discovered in 1801, with a “That’s funny.”. Soon after astronomers turned up many more small objects orbiting in this region at the “Oooh neat!” stage.

Artist’s concept of Dawn in its survey orbit at dwarf planet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of Dawn in its survey orbit at dwarf planet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

They realized it was a vast belt of material orbiting the Sun, with I suspect a “We’re all gonna die.”. To date, almost half a million asteroids have been discovered, most of which are in the main belt.

As mentioned in a another video, gathering up all the material in the asteroid belt and gluing it together makes a mass around 4% of the Moon. So, in case one of your friends gets excited and suggests it was a failed planet, you can bust out that stat and publicly shame them for being so 1996, Goodwill Hunting style. You like asteroids? How about them asteroids?

There’s a few hundred larger than 100 km across, and tens of millions of rocks a hundred meters across. Any one of these could ruin a good day, or bring a bad day to a welcome firey close for either a depressed wayfaring spacecraft or a little bluegreen speck of a planet. Which sounds dangerous all the way around.

Fortunately, our asteroid belt is a vast region of space. Let’s wind up the perspective-o-meter. If you divide the total number of objects in the field by the volume of space that asteroid belt takes up, each space rock is separated by hundreds of thousands of kilometers. Think of it as gravity’s remarkably spacious zen rock garden.

Ceres compared to asteroids visited to date, including Vesta, Dawn's mapping target in 2011. Image by NASA/ESA. Compiled by Paul Schenck.
Ceres compared to asteroids visited to date, including Vesta, Dawn’s mapping target in 2011. Image by NASA/ESA. Compiled by Paul Schenck.

As a result, when NASA engineers plot a spacecraft’s route through the asteroid belt, they don’t expect to make a close encounter with any asteroids – in fact, they’ll change its flight path to intercept asteroids en route. Because hey look, asteroid!

Even though Ceres was discovered in 1801, it’s never been observed up close, until now. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft already visited Asteroid Vesta, and by the time you’re watching this video, it will have captured close-up images of the surface of Ceres.

Once again, science fiction creatives sold us out to drama over hard science. If you’re passing through an asteroid belt, you won’t need to dodge and weave to avoid the space rocks. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even know you were passing through a belt at all. You’d have to go way the heck over there to even get a nearby look at one of the bloody things. So we’re safe, our speck is safe, and all the little spacecraft are safe…. for now.

Which dramatic version of “asteroids” are you most fond of? Tell us in the comments below.

Amazingly Detailed New Maps of Asteroid Vesta

Vesta is one of the largest asteroids in the Solar System. Comprising 9% of the mass in the Asteroid Belt, it is second in size only to the dwarf-planet Ceres. And now, thanks to data obtained by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, Vesta’s surface has been mapped out in unprecedented detail.
These high-resolution geological maps reveal the variety of Vesta’s surface features and provide a window into the asteroid’s history.

“The geologic mapping campaign at Vesta took about two-and-a-half years to complete, and the resulting maps enabled us to recognize a geologic timescale of Vesta for comparison to other planets,” said David Williams of Arizona State University.

Geological mapping is a technique used to derive the geologic history of a planetary object from detailed analysis of surface morphology, topography, color and brightness information. The team found that Vesta’s geological history is characterized by a sequence of large impact events, primarily by the Veneneia and Rheasilvia impacts in Vesta’s early history and the Marcia impact in its late history.

The geologic mapping of Vesta was made possible by the Dawn spacecraft’s framing camera, which was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research of the German Max Planck Society and the German Aerospace Center.  This camera takes panchromatic images and seven bands of color-filtered images, which are used to create topographic models of the surface that aid in the geologic interpretation.

A team of 14 scientists mapped the surface of Vesta using Dawn data. The study was led by three NASA-funded participating scientists: Williams; R. Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute; and W. Brent Garry of the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center.

This high-res geological map of Vesta is derived from Dawn spacecraft data. Brown colors represent the oldest, most heavily cratered surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
This high-res geological map of Vesta is derived from Dawn spacecraft data. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The brown colored sections of the map represent the oldest, most heavily cratered surface. Purple colors in the north and light blue represent terrains modified by the Veneneia and Rheasilvia impacts, respectively. Light purples and dark blue colors below the equator represent the interior of the Rheasilvia and Veneneia basins. Greens and yellows represent relatively young landslides or other downhill movement and crater impact materials, respectively.

The map indicates the prominence of impact events – such as the Veneneia, Rheasilvia and Marcia impacts, respectively – in shaping the asteroid’s surface. It also indicates that the oldest crust on Vesta pre-dates the earliest Veneneia impact. The relative timescale is supplemented by model-based absolute ages from two different approaches that apply crater statistics to date the surface.

“This mapping was crucial for getting a better understanding of Vesta’s geological history, as well as providing context for the compositional information that we received from other instruments on the spacecraft: the visible and infrared (VIR) mapping spectrometer and the gamma-ray and neutron detector (GRaND),” said Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The objective of NASA’s Dawn mission is to characterize the two most massive objects in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter – Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres.

These Hubble Space Telescope images of Vesta and Ceres show two of the most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt, a region between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/European Space Agency
These Hubble Space Telescope images of Vesta and Ceres show two of the most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA/European Space Agency

Asteroids like Vesta are remnants of the formation of the solar system, giving scientists a peek at its early history. They can also harbor molecules that are the building blocks of life and reveal clues about the origins of life on Earth. Hence why scientists are eager to learn more about its secrets.

The Dawn spacecraft was launched in September of 2007 and orbited Vesta between July 2011 and September 2012. Using ion propulsion in spiraling trajectories to travel from Earth to Vesta, Dawn will orbit Vesta and then continue on to orbit the dwarf planet Ceres by April 2015.

The high resolution maps were included with a series of 11 scientific papers published this week in a special issue of the journal Icarus. The Dawn spacecraft is currently on its way to Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, and will arrive at Ceres in March 2015.

Further Reading: NASA

Why Isn’t the Asteroid Belt a Planet?

It seems like there’s a strange gap in between Mars and Jupiter filled with rocky rubble. Why didn’t the asteroid belt form into a planet, like the rest of the Solar System?

Beyond the orbit of Mars lies the asteroid belt its a vast collection of rocks and ice, leftover from the formation of the solar system. It starts about 2 AU, ends around 4 AU. Objects in the asteroid belt range from tiny pebbles to Ceres at 950 km across.

Star Wars and other sci-fi has it all wrong. The objects here are hundreds of thousand of kilometers apart. There’d be absolutely no danger or tactical advantage to flying your spacecraft through it.

To begin with, there actually isn’t that much stuff in the asteroid belt. If you were to take the entire asteroid belt and form it into a single mass, it would only be about 4% of the mass of our Moon. Assuming a similar density, it would be smaller than Pluto’s moon Charon.

There’s a popular idea that perhaps there was a planet between Mars and Jupiter that exploded, or even collided with another planet. What if most of the debris was thrown out of the solar system, and the asteroid belt is what remains?

We know this isn’t the case for a few of reasons. First, any explosion or collision wouldn’t be powerful enough to throw material out of the Solar System. So if it were a former planet we’d actually see more debris.

Second, if all the asteroid belt bits came from a single planetary body, they would all be chemically similar. The chemical composition of Earth, Mars, Venus, etc are all unique because they formed in different regions of the solar system. Likewise, different asteroids have different chemical compositions, which means they must have formed in different regions of the asteroid belt.

Asteroids
Artist’s depiction of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: David Minton and Renu Malhotra

In fact, when we look at the chemical compositions of different asteroids we see that they can be grouped into different families, with each having a common origin. This gives us a clue as to why a planet didn’t form where the asteroid belt is.

If you arrange all the asteroids in order of their average distance from the Sun, you find they aren’t evenly distributed. Instead you find a bunch, then a gap, then a bunch more, then another gap, and so on. These gaps in the asteroid belt are known as Kirkwood gaps, and they occur at distances where an orbit would be in resonance with the orbit of Jupiter.

Jupiter’s gravity is so strong, that it makes asteroid orbits within the Kirkwood gaps unstable. It’s these gaps that prevented a single planetary body from forming in that region. So, because of Jupiter, asteroids formed into families of debris, rather than a single planetary body.

What do you think? What’s your favorite object in the asteroid belt. Tell us in the comments below.

Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft

When you think of the asteroid belt, you probably imagine a region of rock and dust, with asteroids as far as the eye can see.  Such a visual has been popularized in movies, where spaceships must swerve left and right to avoid collisions.  But a similar view is often portrayed in more scientific imagery, such as the artistic rendering above.  Even the first episode of the new Cosmos series portrayed the belt as a dense collection of asteroids. But the reality is very different.  In reality the asteroid belt is less cluttered than often portrayed.  Just how much less might surprise you.

The Sloan digital sky survey (SDSS) has identified more than 100,000 asteroids in the solar system.  Not all of these lie within the asteroid belt, but there are about 80,000 asteroids in the belt larger than a kilometer.  Of course there are asteroids smaller than that, but they are more difficult to detect, so we aren’t exactly sure how many there are.

The pyramid-shaped zodiacal light cone is centered on the same path the sun and planets take across the sky called the ecliptic. This map shows the sky 90 minutes after sunset in early March facing west. Created with Stellarium
The pyramid-shaped zodiacal light cone is centered on the same path the sun and planets take across the sky called the ecliptic. This map shows the sky 90 minutes after sunset in early March facing west. Created with Stellarium

We have a pretty good idea, however, because the observations we have indicate that the size distribution of asteroids follows what is known as a power law distribution. For example, with a power law of 1, for every 100-meter wide asteroid there would be 10 with a diameter of 10 meters and 100 with a diameter of 1 meter. Based upon SDSS observations, asteroids seem to follow a power law of about 2, which means there are likely about 800 trillion asteroids larger than a meter within the belt. That’s a lot of rock. So much that sunlight scattering off the asteroid belt and other dust in the solar system is the source of zodiacal light.

But there is also a lot of volume within the asteroid belt. The belt can be said to occupy a region around the Sun from about 2.2 to 3.2 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun from the Sun (AU), with a thickness of about 1 AU. A bit of math puts that at about 50 trillion trillion cubic kilometers. So even though there are trillions of asteroids, each asteroid has billions of cubic kilometers of space on average. The asteroid belt is hardly something you would consider crowded. It should be emphasized that asteroids in the belt are not evenly distributed. They are clustered into families and groups. But even such clustering is not significant compared to the vast space it occupies.

An actual image from within the asteroid belt, taken from the NEAR probe as it was heading toward Eros (center). Credit: NASA
An actual image from within the asteroid belt, taken from the NEAR probe as it was heading toward Eros (center).
Credit: NASA

You can even do a very rough calculation to get an idea of just how empty the asteroid belt actually is. If we assumed that all the asteroids lay within a single plane, then on average there is 1 asteroid within an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. Within the entire United States there would be about 2000 asteroids, most of them only a meter across. The odds of seeing an asteroid along a cross-country road trip, much less hitting one, would be astoundingly small. So you can see why we don’t worry about space probes hitting an asteroid on their way to the outer solar system.  In fact, to get even close to an asteroid takes a great deal of effort.

Earth’s Water Story Gets A Plot Twist From Space Rock Search

We at Universe Today have snow on our minds these days with all this Polar Vortex talk. From out the window, the snowflakes all look the same, but peer at flakes under a microscope and you can see all these different designs pop up. Turns out that our asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is also much more diverse than previously believed, all because astronomers took the time to do a detailed survey.

Here’s the interesting thing: the diversity, the team says, implies that Earth-like planets would be hard to find, which could be a blow for astronomers seeking an Earth 2.0 somewhere out in the universe if other research agrees.

To jump back a couple of steps, there’s a debate about how water arose on Earth. One theory is that back billions of years ago when the solar system was settling into its current state — a time when planetesimals were crashing into each other constantly and the larger planets possibly migrated between different orbits — comets and asteroids bearing water crashed into a proto-Earth.

Artist's conception of asteroids or comets bearing water to a proto-Earth. Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Artist’s conception of asteroids or comets bearing water to a proto-Earth. Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

“If true, the stirring provided by migrating planets may have been essential to bringing those asteroids,” the astronomers stated in a press release. “This raises the question of whether an Earth-like exoplanet would also require a rain of asteroids to bring water and make it habitable. If so, then Earth-like worlds might be rarer than we thought.”

To take this example further, the researchers found that the asteroid belt comes from a mix of locations around the solar system. Well, a model the astronomers cite shows that Jupiter once migrated much closer to the sun, basically at the same distance as where Mars is now.

When Jupiter migrated, it disturbed everything in its wake and possibly removed as much as 99.9 per cent of the original asteroid population. And other planet migrations in general threw in rocks from everywhere into the asteroid belt. This means the origin of water in the belt could be more complicated than previously believed.

You can read more details of the survey in the journal Nature. Data was gathered from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the research was led by Francesca DeMeo, a Hubble postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Comets Could Arise Closer To Earth, Study Suggests

Comet 'Bites the Dust' Around Dead Star

There’s a potential “cometary graveyard” of inactive comets in our solar system wandering between Mars and Jupiter, a new Colombian research paper says. This contradicts a long-standing view that comets originate on the fringes of the solar system, in the Oort Cloud.

Mysteriously, however, 12 active comets have been seen in and around the asteroid belt. The astronomers theorize there must be a number of inactive comets in this region that flare up when a stray gravitational force from Jupiter nudges the comets so that they receive more energy from the Sun.

The researchers examined comets originating from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, a spot where it is believed there are only asteroids (small bodies made up mostly of rock). Comets, by contrast, are a mixture of rocks and ice. The ice melts when the comet gets close to the sun, and can form spectacular tails visible from Earth. (Here’s more detail on the difference between a comet and an asteroid.)

This illustration shows three views of cometary activity. Top: The accepted view of comets, showing them coming from the outer solar system. Middle: The new proposal, saying some could come from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Bottom: How the asteroid belt comets could have appeared during the early solar system's history. Credit: Ignacio Ferrin / University of Antioquia
This illustration shows three views of cometary activity. Top: The accepted view of comets, showing them coming from the outer solar system. Middle: The new proposal, saying some could come from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Bottom: How the asteroid belt comets could have appeared during the early solar system’s history. Credit: Ignacio Ferrin / University of Antioquia

“Imagine all these asteroids going around the Sun for aeons, with no hint of activity,” stated Ignacio Ferrín, who led the research and is a part of the University of Antioquia in Colombia.

“We have found that some of these are not dead rocks after all, but are dormant comets that may yet come back to life if the energy that they receive from the Sun increases by a few per cent.”

The team believes this zone was far more active millions of years ago, but as the population got older they got more quiet.

“Twelve of those rocks are true comets that were rejuvenated after their minimum distance from the Sun was reduced a little,” the researchers stated.

“The little extra energy they received from the Sun was then sufficient to revive them from the graveyard.”

Check out more details of the research in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. There is also a preprinted version available on Arxiv.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta

Take us into orbit Mr. Sulu!

The Dawn science team has released two spectacular rotation movies of the entire globe of the giant asteroid Vesta. The flyover videos give the distinct impression that you are standing on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and gazing at the view screen as the ship enters orbit about a new planet for the first time and are about to begin an exciting new journey of exploration and discovery of the body you’re looking at below.

Thanks to NASA, DLR, ASI and Dawn’s international science and engineering team, we can all join the away team on the expedition to unveil Vesta’s alluring secrets.

Click the start button and watch protoplanet Vesta’s striking surface moving beneath from the perspective of Dawn flying above – in the initial survey orbit at an altitude of 2700 kilometers (1700 miles). Vesta is the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt and Dawn’s first scientific conquest.

Another video below was compiled from images taken earlier on July 24, 2011 from a higher altitude after Dawn first achieved orbit about Vesta and revealed that the northern and southern hemispheres are totally different.

The array of images in the videos was snapped by Dawn’s framing camera which was provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The team then created a shape model from the images, according to Dr. Carol Raymond, Dawn’s Deputy Principal Investigator from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The shape model will aid in studying Vesta’s strikingly diverse features of mountains, ridges, valley’s, scarps, cliffs, grooves, craters, even a ‘snowman’ and much more.

Notice that not all of Vesta is illuminated – because it’s northern winter at the asteroid. Vesta has seasons like Earth and the northern polar region in now in perpetual darkness. Data is collected over the day side and radioed back to Earth over the night side.

“On Vesta right now, the southern hemisphere is facing the sun, so everywhere between about 52 degrees north latitude and the north pole is in a long night,” says Dr. Rayman, Dawn’s Chief Engineer from JPL. “That ten percent of the surface is presently impossible to see. Because Dawn will stay in orbit around Vesta as together they travel around the sun, in 2012 it will be able to see some of this hidden scenery as the seasons advance.”

Another movie highlight is a thorough look at the gigantic south pole impact basin. The circular feature is several hundred miles wide and may have been created by a cosmic collision eons ago that excavated massive quantities of material and basically left Vesta lacking a south pole.

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The massive feature was discovered in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope several years ago and mission scientists have been eager to study it up close in a way that’s only possible from orbit. Dawn’s three science instruments will investigate the south pole depression in detail by collecting high resolution images and spectra which may reveal the interior composition of Vesta.

Dawn entered the survey orbit on Aug. 11 and completed seven revolutions of 69 hours each on Sept. 1. It transmitted more than 2,800 pictures from the DLR framing camera covering the entire illuminated surface and also collected over three million visible and infrared spectra from the VIR spectrometer – provided by ASI, the Italian Space Agency. This results exceeded the mission objectives.

The Dawn spacecraft is now spiraling down closer using its ion propulsion system to the next mapping orbit – known as HAMO – four times closer than the survey orbit and only some 680 km (420 miles) above the surface.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Dawn
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