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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:
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.
“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.
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.
Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:
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.
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.
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.”
Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
Read more about the Popular Science citations and awards here
Read continuing features about Curiosity, Dawn and MESSENGER by Ken Kremer starting here:
Scientists leading NASA’sDawn 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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
NASA has just released an amazing new view of the mysterious south pole of Vesta that offers an oblique perspective view of the central mountain peak which is three times as high as Mt Everest. This topographic view , shown above,is completely unique to viewers from Earth and is provided courtesy of NASA’s exotic Dawn Asteroid Orbiter – newly arrived in July 2011.
The mountain peak rises about 15 miles (22 km) above the average height of the surrounding pockmarked terrain at Vesta’s south polar region – formally named Rheasilvia – and is located in the foreground, left side of the new image. A portion of the crater rim with a rather steep slope – known as a scarp – is seen at the right and may show evidence of Vestan landslides.
This oblique image derived from the on board Framing Camera was created from a shape model of the 530 km diameter asteroid. It has been flattened to remove the curvature of Vesta and has a vertical scale adjusted to 1.5 times that of the horizontal scale.
The origin of Vesta’s south polar region is hotly debated among the mission’s science team who will reveal their current theories at a briefing set for October 12 – watch for my upcoming report.
Dawn will remain in orbit at Vesta for 1 year until July 2012 and then fire up its revolutionary ion propulsion system to depart for Ceres, the largest Asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter.
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.
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.
“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?
Read Ken’s continuing features about Dawn and Vesta
Video caption: Rheasilvia Impact Basin and Vesta shape model. This false-color shape model video of the giant asteroid Vesta was created from images taken by the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Rheasilvia – South Pole Impact Basin – shown at bottom (left) and head on (at right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
‘Rheasilvia’ – that’s the brand new name given to the humongous and ever more mysterious South Pole basin feature being scrutinized in detail by Dawn, according to the missions top scientists in a Universe Today exclusive. Dawn is NASA’s newly arrived science orbiter unveiling the giant asteroid Vesta – a marvelously intriguing body unlike any other in our Solar System.
What is Rheasilvia? An impact basin? A crater remnant? Tectonic action? A leftover from internal processes? Or something completely different? That’s the hotly debated central question consuming loads of attention and sparking significant speculation amongst Dawn’s happily puzzled international science team. There is nothing closely analogous to Vesta and Rhea Silvia – and thats a planetary scientists dream come true.
“Rheasilvia – One thing that we all agree on is that the large crater should be named ‘Rheasilvia’ after the mother of Romulus and Remus, the mythical mother of the Vestals,” said Prof. Chris Russell, Dawns lead scientist, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Russell, from UCLA, is the scientific Principal Investigator for Dawn.
“Since we have never seen any crater just like this one it is difficult for us to decide exactly what did happen,” Russell told me. “The name ‘Rheasilvia’ has been approved by the IAU and the science team is using it.”
Craters on Vesta are being named after the Vestal Virgins—the priestesses of the Roman goddess Vesta. Other features will be named for festivals and towns of that era. Romulus and Remus were the mythical founders of Rome.
‘Rheasilvia’ has the science team in a quandary, rather puzzled and reevaluating and debating long held theories as they collect reams of new data from Dawn’s three science instruments – provided by the US, Germany and Italy. That’s the scientific method in progress and it will take time to reach a consensus.
Prior to Dawn’s orbital insertion in July 2011, the best views of Vesta were captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and clearly showed it wasn’t round. Scientists interpreted the data as showing that Vesta’s southern hemisphere lacked a South Pole! And, that it had been blasted away eons ago by a gargantuan cosmic collision that excavated huge amounts of material that nearly utterly destroyed the asteroid.
The ancient collision left behind a colossal 300 mile (500 km) diameter and circular gaping hole in the southern hemisphere – nearly as wide as the entire asteroid (530 km) and leaving behind an as yet unexplained and enormous central mountain peak, measuring some 9 miles (15 km) high and over 125 miles (200 km) in diameter. The mountain has one of the highest elevations in the entire solar system.
“We are trying to understand the high scarps that we see and the scarps that should be there and aren’t,” Russell explained. “We are trying to understand the landslides we think we see and why the land slid. We see grooves in the floor of the basin and want to interpret them.
“And the hill in the center of the crater remains as mysterious today as when we first arrived.”
Another top Dawn scientist described Rheasilvia in this way:
“I would say that the floor of the impact feature contains chaotic terrain with multiple sets of intersecting grooves, sometimes fairly straight and often curvy, said Carol Raymond to Universe Today. Raymond is Dawn’s Deputy Principal Investigator from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“The crater rim is not well-expressed”, Raymond told me. “We see strong color variations across Vesta, and the south pole impact basin appears to have a distinct spectral signature.
“The analysis is still ongoing,” Russell said.
“The south is distinctly different than the north. The north has a varied spectrum and the south has a distinct spectral feature but it has little variation.” Time will tell as additional high resolution measurements are collected from the forthcoming science campaign at lower orbits.
Russell further informed that the team is rushing to pull all the currently available data together in time for a science conference and public briefing in mid-October.
“We have set ourselves a target to gather everything we know about the south pole impact feature and expect to have a press release from what ever we conclude at the GSA (Geological Society of America) meeting on October 12. “We will tell the public what the options are.”
“We do not have a good analog to Vesta anywhere else in the Solar System and we’ll be studying it very intently.”
Right now Dawn is using its ion propulsion system to spiral down four times closer to Vesta, as it descends from the initlal survey orbit(about 2700 km, 1700 mi) to the new science orbit, elegantly named HAMO – or High Altitude Mapping Orbit (about 685 km.)
“Our current plan is to begin HAMO on Sept. 29, but we will not finalize that plan until next week,” Dr. Marc Rayman told Universe Today. Rayman, of NASA’s JPL, is Dawn’s Chief Engineer.
“Dawn’s mean altitude today (Sept. 20) is around 680 km (420 miles),” said Rayman .
“Dawn successfully completed the majority of the planned ion thrusting needed to reach its new science orbit and navigators are now measuring its orbital parameters precisely so they can design a final maneuver to ensure the spacecraft is in just the orbit needed to begin its intensive mapping observations next week.”
Watch for lots more stories upcoming on Vesta and the Dawn mission
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.
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.