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.
The ‘Snowman’ is a string of three craters and is among the most strange and prominent features discovered on a newly unveiled world in our solar system – the giant asteroid Vesta. It reminded team members of the jolly wintertime figure – hence its name – and is a major stand out in the 3 D image above and more snapshots below.
Until a few weeks ago, we had no idea the ‘Snowman’ even existed or what the rest of Vesta’s surface actually looked like. That is until NASA’s Dawn spacecraft approached close enough and entered orbit around Vesta on July 16 and photographed the Snowman – and other fascinating Vestan landforms.
“Each observation of Vesta is producing incredible views more exciting than the last”, says Dawn’s Chief Engineer, Dr. Marc Rayman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Every image revealed new and exotic landscapes. Vesta is unlike any other place humankind’s robotic ambassadors have visited.”
The Snowman is located in the pockmarked northern hemisphere of Vesta – see the full frame image below. The largest of the three craters is some 70 km in diameter. Altogether the trio spans roughly 120 km in length. See Image at Left
“Craters, Craters, Craters Everywhere” – that’s one thing we can now say for sure about Vesta.
And soon we’ll known a lot more about the mineralogical composition of the craters and Vesta because spectral data is now pouring in from Dawn’s spectrometers.
After being captured by Vesta, the probe “used its ion propulsion system to spiral around Vesta, gradually descending to its present altitude of 2700 kilometers (1700 miles),” says Chief Engineer Rayman. “As of Aug.11, Dawn is in its survey orbit around Vesta.”
Dawn has now begun its official science campaign. Each orbit currently last 3 days.
Dawn’s scientific Principal Investigator, Prof. Chris Russell of UCLA, fondly calls Vesta the smallest terrestrial Planet !
I asked Russell for some insight into the Snowman and how it might have formed. He outlined a few possibilities in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.
“Since there are craters, craters, craters everywhere on Vesta it is always possible that these craters struck Vesta in a nearly straight line but many years apart,” Russell replied.
“On the other hand when we see ‘coincidences’ like this, we are suspicious that it is really not a coincidence at all but that an asteroid that was a gravitational agglomerate [sometimes called a rubble pile] struck Vesta.”
“As the loosely glued together material entered Vesta’s gravity field it broke apart with the parts moving on slightly different paths. Three big pieces landed close together and made adjacent craters.”
So, which scenario is it ?
“Our science team is trying to figure this out,” Russell told me.
“They are examining the rims of the three craters to see if the rims are equally degraded, suggesting they are of similar age. They will try to see if the ejecta blankets interacted or fell separately”
“The survey data are great but maybe we will have to wait until the high altitude mapping orbit [HAMO] to get higher resolution data on the rim degradation.”
Dawn will descend to the HAMO mapping orbit in September.
Russell and the Dawn team are elated with the fabulous results so far, some of which have been a total surprise.
How old is the Snowman ?
“We date the age of the surface by counting the number of craters on it as a function of size and compare with a model that predicts the number of craters as a function of size and as a function of time from the present,” Russell responded.
“However this does not tell us the age of a crater. If the crater destroyed all small craters in its bowland and left a smooth layer [melt] then the small crater counts would be reset at the impact.”
“Then you could deduce the age from the crater counts. You can also check the degradation of the rim but that is not as quantitative as the small crater counts in the larger crater. The team is doing these checks but they may have to defer the final answer until they obtain the much higher resolution HAMO data,” said Russell.
Besides images, the Dawn team is also collecting spectral data as Dawn flies overhead.
“The team is mapping the surface with VIR- the Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer – and will have mineral data shortly !”, Russell told me.
At the moment there is a wealth of new science data arriving from space and new missions from NASA’s Planetary Science Division are liftoff soon. Juno just launched to Jupiter, GRAIL is heading to the launch pad and lunar orbit and the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is undergoing final preflight testing for blastoff to the Red Planet.
Russell had these words of encouragement to say to his fellow space explorers;
“Dawn wishes GRAIL and MSL successful launches and hopes its sister missions join her in the exploration of our solar system very shortly.”
“This year has been and continues to be a great one for Planetary Science,” Russell concluded.
To help celebrate the start of the Dawn mission to Vesta, NASA is organizing a “Vesta Fiesta!” After traveling the solar system for nearly four years, the Dawn spacecraft is now entering the “science” phase of its mission. Given the fact that Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit an object in the asteroid belt, a fiesta is in order! (Here in Arizona we relish ANY excuse to fiesta!) Between August 5 and August 7, 2011, Vesta Fiestas will be held to help celebrate Dawn’s arrival at Vesta.
NASA is encouraging fans of the Dawn mission to join the celebration by hosting events at local clubs, schools, museums or societies. NASA has also provided numerous resources that are free to use for Vesta Fiestas, including games and activities, media resources (invitations, audio files, observing info, etc.) and live video on August 6th from the “Flagship” celebration at JPL in Pasedena, California.
After studying the asteroid Vesta, Dawn will continue on to study dwarf planet Ceres, also in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
To help encourage participation, I humbly offer my Spicy Fiesta Cheese Dip:
1lb sausage (breakfast or Italian)
1 block of Velveeta (cut into ~1 inch square cubes)
1 jar of your favorite salsa and (Optional) 1 small can (4oz?) of diced green chile peppers – Not Red Hot Chili Peppers! Flea, Chad and Anthony hate being diced.)
Procedure: Place 1/2 of the cubed Velveeta in a crock pot, set to “high”. Cook sausage and diced peppers completely in a skillet, add cooked sausage and peppers to the crock pot along with the salsa and remaining velveeta. Leave crock pot on “high” until all the Velveeta is melted, then set to “low” – stir often! Serve with tortilla chips and an ice cold drink of your choice.
If you’d like to learn more about the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres, you can visit the Dawn website.
NASA has just released the first full frame images of Vesta– and they are thrilling! The new images unveil Vesta as a real world with extraordinarily varied surface details and in crispy clear high resolution for the first time in human history.
Vesta appears totally alien and completely unique. “It is one of the last major uncharted worlds in our solar system,” says Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Now that we are in orbit we can see that it’s a unique and fascinating place.”
“We have been calling Vesta the smallest terrestrial planet,” said Chris Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator at the UCLA. “The latest imagery provides much justification for our expectations. They show that a variety of processes were once at work on the surface of Vesta and provide extensive evidence for Vesta’s planetary aspirations.”
The newly published image (shown above) was taken at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers) by Dawn’s framing camera as the probe continues spiraling down to her initial science survey orbit of some 1,700 miles (2,700 km) altitude. The new images show the entire globe all the way since the giant asteroid turns on its axis once every five hours and 20 minutes.
Vesta and its new moon – Dawn – are approximately 114 million miles (184 million kilometers) distant away from Earth.
“The new observations of Vesta are an inspirational reminder of the wonders unveiled through ongoing exploration of our solar system,” said Jim Green, planetary division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Dawn was launched atop a Delta II Heavy booster rocket in September 2007, took a gravity assist as it flew past Mars and has been thrusting with exotic ion propulsion for about 70 percent of the time ever since.
Dawn will spend 1 year collecting science data in orbit around Vesta before heading off to the Dwarf Planet Ceres.
The science team has just completed their press briefing. Watch for my more detailed report upcoming soon.
And don’t forget JUNO launches on Aug 5 – It’s an exciting week for NASA Space Science and I’ll be reporting on the Jupiter orbiter’s blastoff and more – as Opportunity closes in on Spirit Point !
NASA’s groundbreaking interplanetary science is all inter connected – because Vesta and Ceres failed to form into full-fledged planets thanks to the disruptive influence of Jupiter.
NASA’s Dawn Asteroid Orbiter is now spiraling down ever closer to the protoplanet Vesta – since arriving on July 16 – and capturing magnificent new high resolution images of the huge impact basin at the South Pole that dominates the surface. See enhanced image here.
The Dawn team just released a new image taken by the framing camera on July 18 as the orbiter flew from the day side to the night side at an altitude of 10,500 kilometers above Vesta, the second most massive body in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.
“I find this picture very dramatic !” exclaimed Dr. Marc Rayman, Dawn Chief Engineer from the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in an interview with Universe Today.
“Dawn acquired this image after it had flown past the terminator and its orbit began taking it over the night side of Vesta.”
“After having this view, the spacecraft resumed gradually spiraling around its new home, heading for survey orbit where it will begin intensive observations of Vesta,” Rayman told me.
Dawn will reach the initial science survey orbit in early August, approximately 1700 miles above the battered surface. Vesta turns on its axis once very five hours and 20 minutes.
Vesta suffered an enormous cosmic collision eons ago that apparently created a gigantic impact basin in the southern hemisphere and blasted enormous quantities of soil, rocks and dust into space. Some 5% of all meteorites found on Earth originate from Vesta.
“The south pole region was declared to be a large impact basin after the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) data and images were obtained,” elaborated Prof. Chris Russell, Dawn Principal Investigator from UCLA.
“Now that we have higher resolution images we see that this region is unlike any other large impact on a small body but much of our experience here is on icy bodies of similar size,” Russell told me.
Dawn’s new images of Vesta taken at close range from just a few thousand miles away, now vastly exceed those taken by Hubble as it circled in Earth orbit hundreds of millions of miles away and may cause the science team to reevaluate some long held theories.
“The team is looking forward to obtaining higher resolution data over this region to look for confirmatory evidence for the impact hypothesis. They are not yet willing to vote for or against the HST interpretation. Needless to say the team got very excited by this image,” said Russell.
Dawn will orbit Vesta for one year before heading to its final destination, the Dwarf Planet Ceres.
The first ever Vesta Vista snapped from the protoplanets orbit has been transmitted back through 117 million miles of space to eager eyes waiting on Earth. Although Vesta had been observed by telescopes on Earth and in space for more than two centuries since its discovery, only scant detail on its surface could be discerned until today.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft took the new photo of the giant asteroid Vesta on July 17 – enhanced version shown above – less than 2 days after making space history as the first probe ever to enter orbit about an object in the main Asteroid Belt. The team also released their first 3 D image of Vesta. Read my orbital capture story here and see the original NASA image below.
“I think it is truly thrilling to be turning what was little more than a fuzzy blob for two centuries into a fascinating alien world,” said Dawn Chief Engineer Marc Rayman in a new post orbit interview with Universe Today.
Vesta is 330 miles (530 kilometers) in diameter and the second most massive object in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.
“And the closer Dawn gets to Vesta, the more exotic and intriguing the pictures become !,” added Rayman.
Dawn was captured into orbit at an altitude of 9,900 miles (16,000 km) at 1 a.m. EDT on July 16 according to Rayman, of the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. and is now slowly descending over the next few weeks.
“The spacecraft remains healthy, and our spiral down to Vesta is going well,” Rayman told me.
The new photo from orbit is nearly centered on the south pole which suffered a devastation cosmic collision eons ago. That blast sent huge plumes of ejecta streaming out, including towards Earth. About 5% of all known meteorites stem from Vesta.
“The south pole is a bulging feature in the images,” said Prof. Chris Russll, Dawn’s Science Principal Investigator of UCLA in an interview.
“The pole is not centered on this feature but is close to it. We have not finalized our determination of the pole but are close to a ‘final’ answer. We are not making interpretations at this point because the greater resolution that is coming will make all today’s speculations moot,” Russell stated.
By early August, Dawn will have gently been nudged into its initial science observation orbit at an altitude of approximately 1700 miles above the scarred surface of newly discovered mountains, craters, grooves, scarps and more.
During the approach phase, the Dawn team will accomplish multiple tasks with its onboard systems and three science instruments; including the search for possible moons, observing Vesta’s physical properties and obtaining calibration data.
But don’t expect a continuous stream of new pictures, according to Russell.
“We will not have a steady stream of images until we are in one of our
three science phases,” Russell told me. “When we are in transit from one place to another we thrust, stop, turn, image, turn, transmit, turn, thrust, and several days later repeat. All time spent not thrusting is time taken away from science later.”
“The next image is scheduled to be snapped on Saturday July 23.”
We will learn a lot more at the next press conference scheduled to take place on Monday August 1 from JPL.
Dawn will spend one year orbiting around Vesta and collecting high resolution mapping images, determining the chemical composition and measuring its gravity field. Then it will fire its ion thrusters to propel the probe to a second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, arriving in February 2015.
The Asteroid Belt is one of the last unexplored regions of our solar system.
“We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system,” elaborated Russell in a NASA statement. “This region of space has been ignored for far too long. So far, the images received to date reveal a complex surface that seems to have preserved some of the earliest events in Vesta’s history, as well as logging the onslaught that Vesta has suffered in the intervening eons.”
NASA’s super exciting Dawn mission to the Asteroid Belt marked a major milestone in human history by becoming the first ever spacecraft from Planet Earth to achieve orbit around a Protoplanet – Vesta – on July 16. Dawn was launched in September 2007 and was 117 million miles (188 million km) distant from Earth as it was captured by Asteroid Vesta.
Dawn’s achievements thus far have already exceeded the wildest expectations of the science and engineering teams, and the adventure has only just begun ! – so say Dawn’s Science Principal Investigator Prof. Chris Russell, Chief Engineer Dr. Marc Rayman (think Scotty !) and NASA’s Planetary Science Director Jim Green in exclusive new interviews with Universe Today.
As you read these words, Dawn is steadily unveiling new Vesta vistas never before seen by a human being – and in ever higher resolution. And it’s only made possible via the revolutionary and exotic ion propulsion thrusters propelling Dawn through space (think Star Trek !). That’s what NASA, science and space exploration are all about.
“Dawn is in orbit, remains in good health and is continuing to perform all of its functions,” Marc Rayman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., told me. “Indeed, that is how we know it achieved orbit. The confirmation received in a routine communications session that it has continued thrusting is all we needed.”
Dawn entered orbit at about 9900 miles (16000 km) altitude after a nearly 4 year journey of 1.73 billion miles.
Over the next few weeks, the spacecrafts primary task is to gradually spiral down to its initial science operations orbit, approximately 1700 miles above the pock marked surface.
Vesta is the second most massive object in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn is the first probe to orbit an object in the Asteroid Belt.
I asked Principal Investigator Chris Russell from UCLA for a status update on Dawn and to describe what the team can conclude from the images and data collected thus far.
“The Dawn team is really, really excited right now,” Russell replied.
“This is what we have been planning now for over a decade and to finally be in orbit around our first ‘protoplanet’ is fantastic.”
“The images exceed my wildest dreams. The terrain both shows the stress on the Vestan surface exerted by 4.5 billion years of collisions while preserving evidence [it seems] of what may be internal processes. The result is a complex surface that is very interesting and should be very scientifically productive.”
“The team is looking at our low resolution images and trying to make preliminary assessments but the final answers await the higher resolution data that is still to come.”
Russell praised the team and described how well the spacecraft was operating.
“The flight team has been great on this project and deserves a lot of credit for getting us to Vesta EARLY and giving us much more observation time than we had planned,” Russell told me.
“And they have kept the spacecraft healthy and the instruments safe. Now we are ready to work in earnest on our science observations.”
Dawn will remain in orbit at Vesta for one year. Then it will fire its ion thrusters and head for the Dwarf Planet Ceres – the largest object in the Asteroid Belt. Dawn will then achieve another major milestone and become the first spacecraft ever to orbit two celestial objects.
Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA HQ in Washington, DC, summed up his feelings about Dawn in this way;
“Getting Dawn into orbit is an amazing achievement,” Green told me.
“Instead of the ‘fire the thrusters full blast’ we just sort of slid into orbit letting gravity grab the spacecraft with a light tug. This gives us great confidence that the big challenge down the road of getting into orbit around Ceres can also be accomplished just as easily.”
Sharper new images from Vesta will be published by NASA in the next day or so.
“We did take a few navigation images in this last sequence and when they get through processing they should be put on the web this week,” Russell informed. “These images are from a similar angle to the last set and with somewhat better resolution and will not reveal much new.”
However, since Dawn is now orbiting Vesta our upcoming view of the protoplanet will be quite different from what we’ve seen in the approach images thus far.
“We will be changing views in the future as the spacecraft begins to climb into its science orbit,” stated Russell.
“This may reveal new features on the surface as well as giving us better resolution. So stay tuned.”
Marc Rayman explained how and why Dawn’s trajectory is changing from equatorial to polar:
“Now that we are close enough to Vesta for its gravity to cause a significant curvature in the trajectory, our view is beginning to change,” said Rayman. “That will be evident in the pictures taken now and in the near future, as the spacecraft arcs north over the dark side and then orbits back to the south over the illuminated side.”
“The sun is over the southern hemisphere right now,” added Russell. “When we leave we are hoping to see it shine in the north.”
Dawn is an international mission with significant participation from Germany and Italy. The navigation images were taken by Dawn’s framing cameras which were built in Germany.
Exploring Vesta is like studying a fossil from the distant past that will immeasurably increase our knowledge of the beginnings of our solar system and how it evolved over time.
Vesta suffered a cosmic collision at the south pole in the distant past that Dawn can now study at close range.
“For now we are viewing a fantastic asteroid, seeing it up close as we zero in on its southern hemisphere, looking at the huge central peak, and wondering how it got there,” explained Jim Green
“We know Vesta was nearly spherical at one time. Then a collision in its southern hemisphere occurred blowing off an enormous amount of material where a central peak now remains.”
That intriguing peak is now obvious in the latest Dawn images from Vesta. But what does it mean and reveal ?
“We wonder what is that peak? replied Green. “Is it part of the core exposed?
“Was it formed as a result of the impact or did it arise from volcanic action?”
“The Dawn team hopes to answer these questions. I can’t wait!” Green told me.
As a result of that ancient south pole collision, about 5% of all the meteorites found on Earth actually originate from Vesta.
Keep your eyes glued to Dawn as mysterious Vesta’s alluring secrets are unveiled.
The Dawn spacecraft is getting closer to asteroid/protoplanet Vesta, and the view is getting better! Here’s the latest image, which was obtained with Dawn’s framing camera on July 1, 2011 and just released today. It was taken from a distance of about 62,000 miles (100,000 kilometers). Each pixel in the image corresponds to roughly 5.8 miles (9.3 kilometers). Features like craters are starting to sharpen as the spacecraft moves closer, as well as the lumps, bumps and variations in color.
The most exciting part of this mission will be finally figuring out what Vesta really is. Here, it’s looking more like a squished version of our own Moon; a little smoother than I was expecting from some of the earlier images.
Some astronomers classify Vesta as an asteroid, some a protoplanet, and some are on the fence. It’s not really considered a dwarf planet, but the classification could be re-evaluated when Dawn gets in orbit of Vesta and studies it in detail.
Below is an “enhanced” view by Stu Atkinson:
Stu sent us this image with the caveat that he created it for his own amusement/entertainment, and that it’s not a scientifically enhanced image — i.e., it’s not to be 100% relied upon for feature identification, etc. But some of the craters show up a tad better.
Vesta is pretty much an enigma: too big for an asteroid and more evolved than other asteroid. But it is kind of too small for a planet (even a dwarf one). But that’s why it is so interesting so scientists and getting Dawn in orbit will be exciting.