Dawn Closing in on Asteroid Vesta as Views Exceed Hubble

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A new world in our Solar System is about to be unveiled for the first time – the mysterious protoplanet Vesta, which is the second most massive object in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA’s Dawn Asteroid orbiter has entered its final approach phase to Vesta and for the first time is snapping images that finally exceed those taken several years ago by the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.

“The Dawn science campaign at Vesta will unveil a mysterious world, an object that can tell us much about the earliest formation of the planets and the solar system,” said Jim Adams, Deputy Director, Planetary Science Directorate at NASA HQ at a briefing for reporters.

Vesta holds a record of the earliest history of the solar system. The protoplanet failed to form into a full planet due to its close proximity to Jupiter.

Check out this amazing NASA approach video showing Vesta growing in Dawn’s eyes. The compilation of navigation images from Dawn’s framing camera spans about seven weeks from May 3 to June 20 was released at the NASA press briefing by the Dawn science team.

Dawn’s Approach to Vesta – Video

Best View from Hubble – Video

Be sure to notice that Vesta’s south pole is missing due to a cataclysmic event eons ago that created a massive impact crater – soon to be unveiled in astounding clarity. Some of that colossal debris sped toward Earth and survived the terror of atmospheric entry. Planetary Scientists believe that about 5% of all known meteorites originated from Vesta, based on spectral evidence.

After a journey of four years and 1.7 billion miles, NASA’s revolutionary Dawn spacecraft thrusting via exotic ion propulsion is now less than 95,000 miles distant from Vesta, shaping its path through space to match the asteroid.

The internationally funded probe should be captured into orbit on July 16 at an initial altitude of 9,900 miles when Vesta is some 117 million miles from Earth.

After adjustments to lower Dawn to an initial reconnaissance orbit of approximately 1,700 miles, the science campaign is set to kick off in August with the collection of global color images and spectral data including compositional data in different wavelengths of reflected light.

Dawn Approaching Vesta
Dawn obtained this image on June 20, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/PSI and NASA/ESA/STScI/UMd

Dawn will spend a year investigating Vesta. It will probe the protoplanet using its three onboard science instruments – provided by Germany, Italy and the US – and provide researchers with the first bird’s eye images, global maps and detailed scientific measurements to elucidate the chemical composition and internal structure of a giant asteroid.

“Navigation images from Dawn’s framing camera have given us intriguing hints of Vesta, but we’re looking forward to the heart of Vesta operations, when we begin officially collecting science data,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “We can’t wait for Dawn to peel back the layers of time and reveal the early history of our solar system.”

Because Dawn is now so close to Vesta, the frequency of imaging will be increased to twice a week to achieve the required navigational accuracy to successfully enter orbit., according to Marc Rayman, Dawn Chief Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

“By the beginning of August, it will see Vesta with more than 100 times the clarity that Hubble could ever obtain,” says Rayman.

Vesta in Spectrometer View
On June 8, 2011, the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft captured the instrument's first images of Vesta that are larger than a few pixels, from a distance of about 218,000 miles (351,000 kilometers). The image was taken for calibration purposes. An image obtained in the visible part of the light spectrum appears on the left. An image obtained in the infrared spectrum, at around 3 microns in wavelength, appears on the right. The spatial resolution of this image is about 60 miles (90 kilometers) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF

Dawn will gradually edge down closer to altitudes of 420 miles and 120 miles to obtain ever higher resolution orbital images and spectal data before spiraling back out and eventually setting sail for Ceres, the largest asteroid of them all.

Dawn will be the first spacecraft to orbit two celestial bodies, only made possible via the ion propulsion system. With a wingspan of 65 feet, it’s the largest planetary mission NASA has ever launched.

“We’ve packed our year at Vesta chock-full of science observations to help us unravel the mysteries of Vesta,” said Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator at JPL.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity to spend a year at a body that we know almost nothing about,” added Raymond. “We are very interested in the south pole because the impact exposed the deep interior of Vesta. We’ll be able to look at features down to tens of meters so we can decipher the geologic history of Vesta.”

Possible Piece of Vesta
Scientists believe a large number of the meteorites that are found on Earth originate from the protoplanet Vesta. A cataclysmic impact at the south pole of Vesta, the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt, created an enormous crater and excavated a great deal of debris. Some of that debris ended up as other asteroids and some of it likely ended up on Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Dawn Trajectory and Current Location on June 29, 2011. Credt: NASA/JPL
Dawn launch on September 27, 2007 by a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my prior feature about Dawn here

Dawn Begins Approach to Asteroid Vesta and Snaps First Images

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NASA’s revolutionary Dawn Asteroid Orbiter has begun the final approach phase to the giant asteroid Vesta and snapped its first science image. The image was taken on May 3, when Dawn was approximately 1.21 million kilometers (752,000 miles) distant from Vesta using the science imager known as the Framing Camera.

Besides the pure delight of seeing Vesta up close for the first time, the images play a crucial role in navigating Dawn precisely through space and successfully achieve orbit around the protoplanet that nearly formed into a full fledged planet.

Vesta is the second most massive object in the Asteroid Belt and is 530 kilometers (330 miles) in diameter.

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

Dawn should be captured into orbit about Vesta around July 16 as the engineering team works to maneuver the spacecraft to match the asteroids path around the sun using the exotic ion thrusters. Using the background stars in the framing camera images, they will be able to determine Dawn’s location in space relative to the stars in order to precisely navigate the spacecrafts trajectory towards Vesta.

“After plying the seas of space for more than a billion miles, the Dawn team finally spotted its target,” said Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “This first image hints of detailed portraits to come from Dawn’s upcoming visit.”

The best images of Vesta to date were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Jim Adams, Deputy Director of Planetary Science, told me that the images from Dawn’s Framing Camera will exceed those from Hubble in a few weeks.

Dawn will initially enter a highly elliptical polar orbit around Vesta and start collecting science data in August from an altitude of approximately 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers). The orbit will be lowered in stages to collect high resolution data as Dawn spends about a year collecting data from its three science instruments.

Dawn's First Glimpse of Vesta -- Unprocessed
This image shows the first, unprocessed image obtained by NASA's Dawn spacecraft of the giant asteroid Vesta in front of a background of stars. It was obtained by Dawn's framing camera on May 3, 2011, from a distance of about 1.2 million kilometers (750,000 miles). Vesta is inside the white glow at the center of the image. The giant asteroid reflects so much sunlight that its size is dramatically exaggerated at this exposure. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Thereafter Dawn will be targeted to Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt which it will reach in 2015.

Dawn is an international mission.

The framing cameras have been developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, with significant contributions by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research, Berlin, and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering, Braunschweig. The framing camera project is funded by the Max Planck Society, DLR, and NASA.

The Visible and Infrared mapping camera was provided by the Italian Space Agency. The Gamma Ray Detector was supplied by Los Alamos National Labotatory.

Read more about Dawn in my prior story:
Revolutionary Dawn Closing in on Asteroid Vesta with Opened Eyes

Dawn spacecraft under construction in cleanroom. Picture shows close up view of two science instrument; the twin Framing Cameras at top (white rectangles) and VIR Spectrometer at right. Credit: Ken Kremer

Revolutionary Dawn Closing in on Asteroid Vesta with Opened Eyes

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The excitement is building as NASA’s innovative Dawn spacecraft closes in on its first protoplanetary target, the giant asteroid Vesta, with its camera eyes now wide open. The probe is on target to become the first spacecraft from Earth to orbit a body in the main asteroid belt and is set to arrive about four months from now in late July 2011.

Vesta is the second most massive object in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter (map below). Since it is also one of the oldest bodies in our Solar System, scientists are eager to study it and search for clues about the formation and early history of the solar system. Dawn will spend about a year orbiting Vesta. Then it will fire its revolutionay ion thrusters and depart for Ceres, the largest asteroid in our solar system.

Dawn is equipped with three science instruments to photograph and investigate the surface mineralogy and elemental composition of the asteroid. The instruments were provided by the US, Germany and Italy. The spacecraft has just awoken from a six month hibernation phase. All three science instruments have been powered up and reactivated.

Dawn will image about 80 percent of Vesta’s surface at muliple angles with the onboard framing cameras to generate topographical maps. During the year in orbit, the probe will adjust its orbit and map the protoplanet at three different and decreasing altitudes between 650 and 200 kilometers, and thus increasing resolution. The cameras were provided and funded by Germany.

To prepare for the imaging campaign, mission planners from the US and Germany conducted a practice exercise to simulate the mission as though they were mapping Vesta. The effort was coordinated among the science and engineering teams at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Institute of Planetary Research of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin and the Planetary Science Institute in Tuscon, Ariz.

Simulated Vesta from the South Pole
This image shows the scientists' best guess to date of what the surface of the protoplanet Vesta might look like from the south pole, as projected onto a sphere 250 kilometers (160 miles) in radius. It was created as part of an exercise for NASA's Dawn mission involving mission planners at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and science team members at the Planetary Science Institute in Tuscon, Ariz. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/PSI

“We won’t know what Vesta really looks like until Dawn gets there,” said Carol Raymond in a NASA statement. Raymond is Dawn’s deputy principal investigator, based at JPL, who helped orchestrate the activity. “But we needed a way to make sure our imaging plans would give us the best results possible. The products have proven that Dawn’s mapping techniques will reveal a detailed view of this world that we’ve never seen up close before.”

Two teams worked independently and used different techniques to derive the topographical maps from the available data sets. The final results showed only minor differences in spatial resolution and height accuracy.

Using the best available observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and ground based telescopes and computer modeling techniques, they created maps of still images and a rotating animation (below) showing their best guess as to what Vesta’s surface actually looks like. The maps include dimples, bulges and craters based on the accumulated data to simulate topography and thus give a sense of Virtual Vesta in three dimensions (3 D).

“Working through this exercise, the mission planners and the scientists learned that we could improve the overall accuracy of the topographic reconstruction, using a somewhat different observation geometry,” said Nick Mastrodemo, Dawn’s optical navigation lead at JPL. “Since then, Dawn science planners have worked to tweak the plans to implement the lessons of the exercise.”

Dawn launch on September 27, 2007 by a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
Of course no one will know how close these educated guesses come to matching reality until Dawn arrives at Vesta.

The framing camera system consists of two identical cameras developed and built by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin.

“The camera system is working flawlessly. The dry run was a complete success,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera at the Max Planck Institute in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany.

Since the probe came out of hibernation, the mechanical and electrical components were checked out in mid March and found to be in excellent health and the software was updated.

Dawn is a mission of many firsts.

Dawn spacecraft under construction in Cleanroom.
Picture shows close up view of two science instruments;
The twin Framing Cameras at top (white rectangles) and VIR Spectrometer at right. Credit: Ken Kremer
The spacecraft is NASA’s first mission specifically to the Asteroid Belt. It will become the first mission to orbit two solar system bodies.

The revolutionary Dawn mission is powered by exotic ion propulsion which is vastly more efficient than chemical propulsion thrusters. Indeed the ability to orbit two bodies in one mission is only enabled via the use of the ion engines fueled by xenon gas.

Vesta and Ceres are very different worlds that orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Vesta is rocky and may have undergone volcanism whereas Ceres is icy and may even harbor a subsurface ocean conducive to life.

Dawn will be able to comparatively investigate both celestial bodies with the same set of science instruments and try to unlock the mysteries of the beginnings of our solar system and why they are so different.

Dawn is part of NASA’s Discovery program and was launched in September 2007 by a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Virtual Vesta in 2 D.
This image shows a model of the protoplanet Vesta, using scientists' best guess to date of what the surface of the protoplanet might look like. The images incorporate the best data on dimples and bulges of Vesta from ground-based telescopes and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The cratering and small-scale surface variations are computer-generated, based on the patterns seen on the Earth's moon, an inner solar system object with a surface appearance that may be similar to Vesta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/PSI
Virtual Vesta in 3 D.
This anaglyph -- best viewed through red-blue glasses -- shows a 3-D model of the protoplanet Vesta, using scientists' best guess to date of what the surface of the protoplanet might look like. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/PSI
Dawn Spacecraft current location approaching Asteroid Vesta on March 21, 2011