NASA’s Dawn spacecraft experienced technical problems in the past week that will force it to arrive at dwarf planet Ceres one month later than planned, the agency said in a statement yesterday (Sept. 16).
Controllers discovered Dawn was in safe mode Sept. 11 after radiation disabled its ion engine, which uses electrical fields to “push” the spacecraft along. The radiation stopped all engine thrusting activities. The thrusting resumed Monday (Sept. 15) after controllers identified and fixed the problem, but then they found another anomaly troubling the spacecraft.
Dawn’s main antenna was also disabled, forcing the spacecraft to send signals to Earth (a 53-minute roundtrip by light speed) through a weaker secondary antenna and slowing communications. The cause of this problem hasn’t been figured out yet, but controllers suspect radiation affected the computer’s software. A computer reset has solved the issue, NASA added. The spacecraft is now functioning normally.
“As a result of the change in the thrust plan, Dawn will enter into orbit around dwarf planet Ceres in April 2015, about a month later than previously planned. The plans for exploring Ceres once the spacecraft is in orbit, however, are not affected,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory stated in a press release.
Dawn is en route to Ceres after orbiting the huge asteroid Vesta between July 2011 and September 2012. A similar suspected radiation blast three years ago also disabled Dawn’s engine before it reached Vesta, but the ion system worked perfectly in moving Dawn away from Vesta when that phase of its mission was complete, NASA noted.
Among Dawn’s findings at Vesta is that the asteroid is full of hydrogen, and it contains the hydrated mineral hydroxyl. This likely came to the asteroid when smaller space rocks brought the volatiles to its surface through low-speed collisions.
Spacecraft can experience radiation through energy from the Sun (particularly from solar flares) and also from cosmic rays, which are electrically charged particles that originate outside the Solar System. Earth’s atmosphere shields the surface from most space-based radiation.
While “dark materials” may leave some of us thinking about a certain Philip Pullman book series, on the asteroid Vesta its presence belies something equally exotic: old smaller asteroid impacts on its surface.
The dark stuff on the lighter surface has puzzled researchers since it was discovered in 2011 (and has been brought up in other studies), but a new team says it has found that serpentine is among the components. Because that mineral can’t survive temperatures that are more than 400 degrees Celsius (752 degrees Fahrenheit), this means that scenarios such as volcanic eruptions can’t have caused it. This leaves only smaller asteroids, the team says.
“These meteorites are regarded as fragments of carbon-rich asteroids. The impacts must have been comparatively slow, because an asteroid crashing at high speeds would have produced temperatures too high to sustain serpentine,” the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research stated.
“In a previous study, scientists from the MPS had calculated how dark material would be distributed on Vesta as a result of a low-speed oblique impact. Their results are consistent with the distribution of dark material on the edge of one of the two large impact basins in the southern hemisphere.”
The results came from analyzing images the NASA Dawn spacecraft took of Vesta between July 2011 and September 2012. The researchers recalibrated the data and also backed up their results by examining serpentine in laboratory conditions.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has caught the first image of asteroids taken from the surface of Mars on April 20, 2014. The image includes two asteroids, Ceres and Vesta. This version includes Mars’ moon Deimos in a circular, exposure-adjusted inset and square insets at left from other observations the same night. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M
More night sky views and surface mosaics below[/caption]
And it’s not just one asteroid, but two asteroids caught in the same night time pointing on the Red Planet. Namely, asteroids Ceres and Vesta.
The stupendous image – seen above – was snapped by Curiosity’s high resolution Mastcam camera earlier this week on Sunday, April 20, 2014, Sol 606, whilst she was scanning about during daylight for her next drilling target at “The Kimberley” waypoint she pulled into at the start of this month.
Ceres and Vesta appear as streaks since the Mastcam image was taken as a 12 second time exposure.
“This imaging was part of an experiment checking the opacity of the atmosphere at night in Curiosity’s location on Mars, where water-ice clouds and hazes develop during this season,” said camera team member Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, College Station, in a statement.
“The two Martian moons were the main targets that night, but we chose a time when one of the moons was near Ceres and Vesta in the sky.”
View our “Kimberley” region photo mosiacs below to see exactly from where the six wheeled robot took the asteroid image shown above, while driving around the base of “Mount Remarkable”.
And those two asteroids are extra special because not only are they the two most massive objects in the Main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but they are also the destinations of another superlative NASA unmanned mission – Dawn.
The exotic Dawn probe, propelled by a stream of ions, orbited Vesta for a year in 2011 and is now approaching Ceres for an exciting orbital mission in 2015.
Ceres, the largest asteroid, is about 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter. Vesta is the third-largest object in the main belt and measures about 350 miles (563 kilometers) wide.
And as if Curiosity’s mouthwatering and heavenly double asteroid gaze wasn’t already spectacular enough, the tinier of Mars’ moons, Deimos, was also caught in that same image.
A trio of star trails is also seen, again due to the 12 second time exposure time.
Furthermore, Mars largest moon Phobos as well as massive planets Jupiter and Saturn were also visible that same Martian evening, albeit in a different pointing.
These celestial objects are all combined in the composite image above.
“The background is detector noise, limiting what we can see to magnitude 6 or 7, much like normal human eyesight. The two asteroids and three stars would be visible to someone of normal eyesight standing on Mars. Specks are effects of cosmic rays striking the camera’s light detector,” says NASA.
An unannotated image is seen below.
Curiosity’s makers back on Earth are nowhere to be seen. But check out the Curiosity’s earlier photo below of the Earth and Moon from my prior article – here.
To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals 3.8 miles (6.1 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 143,000 images.
The sedimentary foothills of Mount Sharp, which reaches 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky, is the 1 ton robots ultimate destination inside Gale Crater because it holds caches of water altered minerals. Such minerals could possibly indicate locations that sustained potential Martian life forms, past or present, if they ever existed.
Curiosity has some 4 kilometers to go to reach the base of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.
Don’t let them pass you by. Right now and continuing through July, the biggest and brightest asteroids will be running on nearly parallel tracks in the constellation Virgo and so close together they’ll easily fit in the same binocular field of view. The twofer features Ceres (biggest) and Vesta (brightest) which are also the prime targets of NASA’s Dawn Mission. Now en route to a Ceres rendezvous next February, Dawn orbited Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012 and sent back spectacular photos of two vast impact basins, craters stained black by carbon-rich asteroids and parallel troughs that stretch around the 330-mile-wide world like rubber bands.
Astronomers used Dawn’s gravity data to discover Vesta is more like a planet than anyone had supposed. Deep beneath its crust, composed of lighter minerals, lies a denser iron core. Most asteroids were too small to generate enough interior heat through the decay of radioactive elements to melt and “differentiate” into core, mantle and crust like the terrestrial planets. Thanks to our new understanding, you’ll hear Vesta referred to as a ‘baby planet’.
Studies of its crustal rocks showed a match to a clan of basaltic meteorites called howardites, eucrites and diogenites. Many of these formerly volcanic rocks that trace their origin to Vesta are found in numerous private and institutional collections. With a little homework, you can even buy a slice of Vesta on eBay, making for one of the least expensive sample return missions ever undertaken.
Dawn’s Greatest Hits at Vesta – A quick summary of key discoveries accompanied by electric guitar
While Vesta is a rocky body, Ceres shows telltale signs of water and iron-rich clay. Like Vesta, it also appears to have cooked itself into denser core and lighter crust. Because Ceres is less dense than Earth, astronomers believe water ice may be buried beneath its dusty crust.
Earlier this year, astronomers working with the Herschel Space Telescope announced the discovery of plumes of water vapor blasting from two regions on the dwarf planet’s surface. While Ceres is an asteroid it’s also a member of a select group of dwarf planets, bodies large enough to have crunched themselves into spheres through their own gravity but not big enough to clear the region they orbit of smaller asteroids.
Ceres and Vesta will be gradually drawing closer in the coming weeks and months until on July 5 only 10 arc minutes (one-third the diameter of a full moon) will separate them. They’ll also be fading, but not so much that binoculars won’t show them throughout this excellent dual apparition. Vesta will only dim to magnitude +7 by July 1, Ceres to 8.4. Come mid-June I’ll return with a detailed map showing how best to see the dynamic duo during their close conjunction.
Sure, both Ceres and Vesta look exactly like stars even in large amateur telescopes, but sampling photons from real asteroids while listening to the sound of frogs on a spring night is my idea of a good time. Maybe yours too. Good luck!
That ghoul-like sheen on the asteroid Vesta, as seen in the image above, is not some leftover of Hallowe’en. It’s evidence of the mineral olivine. Scientists have seen it before in “differentiated” bodies — those that have a crust and an inner core — but in this case, it’s turning up in an unexpected location.
Finding olivine is not that much of a surprise. Vesta is differentiated and also (likely) is the origin point of diogenite meteorites, which are sometimes olivine-rich. Researchers expected that the olivine would be close to the diogenite rocks, which in Vesta’s case are in areas of the south pole carved out from the mantle.
NASA’s Dawn mission to the asteroid did a search in areas around the south pole — “which are thought to be excavated mantle rocks”, the researchers wrote — but instead found olivine in minerals close to the surface in the northern hemisphere. These minerals are called howardites and are normally not associated with olivine. So what is going on?
Basically, it means that Vesta’s history was far more complex than we expected. This situation likely arose from a series of impacts that changed around the eucritic (stony meteorite) crust of Vesta:
“A generalized geologic history for these olivine-rich materials could be as follows: ancient large impacts excavated and incorporated large blocks of diogenite-rich and olivine-rich material into the eucritic crust, and subsequent impacts exposed this olivine-rich material,” the researchers wrote.
“This produced olivine-rich terrains in a howarditic background, with diogene-rich howardites filling nearby, eroded, older basins.”
Dawn, by the way, has completed its time at Vesta and is now en route to another large asteroid, Ceres. But there’s still plenty of data for analysis. This particular research paper was led by E. Ammannito from the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Planetology (Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali) in Rome. The research appears in this week’s Nature and should be available shortly at this link.
Composite-color 3D image of Cornelia crater on Vesta (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
Ever since arriving at Vesta in July 2011, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been capturing high-resolution images of the protoplanet’s surface, revealing a surprisingly varied and complex terrain covered in ridges, hills, grooves and, of course, craters of many different sizes and ages. Many of Vesta’s largest craters exhibit strange dark stains and splotches within and around them, some literally darker than coal. These stains were a puzzle to scientists when they were first seen, but the latest research now confirms that they may actually be the remains of the ancient impacts that caused them: dark deposits left by the myriad of carbon-rich objects that struck Vesta over the past four-and-a-half billion years.
Even though Vesta had a completely molten surface 4.5 billion years ago it’s believed that its crust likely solidified within a few million years, making the 530-km (329-mile) -wide world a literal time capsule for events taking place in the inner Solar System since then… one reason why Vesta was chosen as a target for the Dawn mission.
Using data acquired by Dawn during its year in orbit around Vesta, a team led by researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the University of North Dakota investigated the dark material seen lining the edges of large impact basins located on the protoplanet’s southern hemisphere. What they determined was that much of the material was delivered during an initial large, low-velocity impact event 2–3 billion years ago that created the largest basin — Veneneia — and was then partially covered by a later impact that created the smaller basin that’s nearly centered on Vesta’s southern pole — Rheasilva.
“The evidence suggests that the dark material on Vesta is rich in carbonaceous material and was brought there by collisions with smaller asteroids.”
– Vishnu Reddy, lead author, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the University of North Dakota
Dawn framing camera images of dark material on Vesta. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
Subsequent smaller asteroid impacts over the millennia likely brought more carbonaceous material to Vesta’s surface, both delivering it as well as revealing any that may have existed beneath brighter surfaces.
The dark, carbon-rich material observed on Vesta by Dawn also seems to match up with similarly dark clasts found in meteorites that have landed on Earth which are thought to have originated from Vesta.
“Our analysis of the dark material on Vesta and comparisons with laboratory studies of HED meteorites for the first time proves directly that these meteorites are fragments from Vesta,” said Lucille Le Corre from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, another lead author of the study.
If evidence of such collisions between worlds can be found on Vesta, it’s likely that similar events were occurring all across the inner solar system during its early days, providing a clue as to how carbon-rich organic material was delivered to Earth — and possibly Mars as well. Such material — the dark stains we see today lining Vesta’s craters — would have helped form the very building blocks of life on our planet.
The team’s findings were published in the November/December issue of the journal Icarus.
Read more on the Max Planck Institute’s news page here, and on the NASA release here. Learn more about the Dawn mission in the video below, narrated by Leonard Nimoy.
This image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows a close up of part of the rim around the crater Canuleia on the giant asteroid Vesta. Canuleia, about 6 miles (10 kilometers) in diameter, is the large crater at the bottom-left of this image. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/PSI/Brown
Like a Hollywood starlet constantly retouching her makeup, the giant asteroid Vesta is constantly stirring its outermost layer to present a young face. Data from NASA’s Dawn mission show that a form of weathering that occurs on the moon and other airless bodies we’ve visited in the inner solar system does not alter Vesta’s outermost layer in the same way. Carbon-rich asteroids have also been splattering dark material on Vesta’s surface over a long span of the body’s history. The results are described in two papers released today in the journal Nature.
“Dawn’s data allow us to decipher how Vesta records fundamental processes that have also affected Earth and other solar system bodies,” said Carol Raymond, Dawn deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “No object in our solar system is an island. Throughout solar system history, materials have exchanged and interacted.”
Over time, soils on Earth’s moon and asteroids such as Itokawa have undergone extensive weathering in the space environment. Scientists see this in the accumulation of tiny metallic particles containing iron, which dulls the fluffy outer layer. Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) and framing camera detected no accumulation of such tiny particles on Vesta, and this particular protoplanet, or almost-planet, remains bright and pristine.
Nevertheless, the bright rays of the youngest features on Vesta are seen to degrade rapidly and disappear into background soil. Scientists know frequent, small impacts continually mix the fluffy outer layer of broken debris. Vesta also has unusually steep topography relative to other large bodies in the inner solar system, which leads to landslides that further mix surface material.
“Getting up close and familiar with Vesta has reset our thinking about the character of the uppermost soils of airless bodies,” said Carle Pieters, one of the lead authors and a Dawn team member based at Brown University, Providence, R.I. “Vesta ‘dirt’ is very clean, well mixed and highly mobile.”
This image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft features the distinctive crater Canuleia on the giant asteroid Vesta. Canuleia, about 6 miles (10 kilometers) in diameter, is distinguished by the rays of bright material that streak out from it. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/PSI/Brown
Early pictures of Vesta showed a variety of dramatic light and dark splotches on Vesta’s surface. These light and dark materials were unexpected and now show the brightness range of Vesta is among the largest observed on rocky bodies in our solar system.
Dawn scientists suspected early on that bright material is native to Vesta. One of their first hypotheses for the dark material suggested it might come from the shock of high-speed impacts melting and darkening the underlying rocks or from recent volcanic activity. An analysis of data from VIR and the framing camera has revealed, however, that the distribution of dark material is widespread and occurs both in small spots and in diffuse deposits, without correlation to any particular underlying geology. The likely source of the dark material is now shown to be the carbon-rich material in meteoroids, which are also believed to have deposited hydrated minerals from other asteroids on Vesta.
To get the amount of darkening we now see on Vesta, scientists on the Dawn team estimate about 300 dark asteroids with diameters between 0.6 to 6 miles (1 and 10 kilometers) likely hit Vesta during the last 3.5 billion years. This would have been enough to wrap Vesta in a blanket of mixed material about 3 to 7 feet (1 to 2 meters) thick.
“This perpetual contamination of Vesta with material native to elsewhere in the solar system is a dramatic example of an apparently common process that changes many solar system objects,” said Tom McCord, the other lead author and a Dawn team member based at the Bear Fight Institute, Winthrop, Wash. “Earth likely got the ingredients for life – organics and water – this way.”
Launched in 2007, Dawn spent more than a year investigating Vesta. It departed in September 2012 and is currently on its way to the dwarf planet Ceres.
Dawn image of Vesta showing its nearly circumferential equatorial grooves (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
Even though NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has departed Vesta the trove of data it’s gathered about this fascinating little world continues to fuel new discoveries. Most recently, some researchers are suggesting that Vesta’s curious grooves — long, deep troughs that wrap around its equator, noticed immediately after Dawn came within close proximity — are actually features called graben, the results of surface expansion along fault lines.
In Vesta’s case, the faults likely may have come from whatever major collision created the enormous central peak that rises almost three times the height of Mt. Everest from its south pole… and the expansion could be the result of differentiation of its interior — a separation of core, mantle and crust that’s much more planet-like than anything asteroidish.
On smaller asteroids and moons, stress fractures tend to have a “V” shape, cutting inwards to a sharp point. But the troughs on Vesta are more rounded, with a “U” shape that results from surface material slumping downwards as the surface pulls apart. Found on larger worlds like Earth, the Moon, Mars, Mercury — and now possibly Vesta as well — graben are shaped by motions below the crust and not just the splitting of the surface.
The biggest of Vesta’s troughs, Divalia Fossa, is 465 kilometers (289 miles) long, 22 km (13.6 mi) wide and 5 km (3 mi) deep… longer and three times deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Animation of Vesta rotating made from Dawn images and assembled by The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla
If the researchers are correct and these are indeed graben, rather than just fractures or grooves carved into the surface by another process, Vesta probably had a lot more going on inside it than does your typical asteroid.
“By saying it’s differentiated, we’re basically saying Vesta was a little planet trying to happen,” said Debra Buczkowski of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), lead author of a new paper titled “Large-scale troughs on Vesta: A signature of planetary tectonics” scheduled to be published by the AGU on Sept. 29.
Unlike its big sister Ceres, the largest world among the asteroids and Dawn’s next destination, Vesta isn’t officially classified as a dwarf planet because its shape isn’t spherical enough — a flagrant violation of IAU Planetary Code Regulation No. 2. Rather it’s more flattened, like a walnut. This of course is also likely the result of the impact Vesta sustained at its south pole (which also may be responsible for its rapid 5.35-hour rotation rate, helping to bulge out the equatorial region and possibly even provide an alternate source for the trough “stretch marks”) and so begs the question, was Vesta once a dwarf planet? And if so, does severe reconstruction by an impact event “reclassify” it as something else? What, then? Ex-dwarf planet? A planet-formerly-known-as-dwarf?An undwarf?
I’m sure the IAU is already anticipating the contretemps.
“We have been calling Vesta the smallest terrestrial planet. 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.”
– Chris Russell, Dawn mission principal investigator at UCLA
Read more on the American Geophysical Union’s press release here, and follow the latest from NASA’s Dawn mission here.
This map from NASA’s Dawn mission shows the global distribution of hydrogen on the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/PSI/MPS/DLR/IDA
The giant asteroid Vesta appears to have a bellyful of hydrogen. Data from the Dawn spacecraft reveals hydrated minerals in a wide area around Vesta’s equator. While Dawn did not find actual water ice, there are signs of hydrated minerals such as hydroxyl in the giant asteroid’s chemistry and geology.
“The source of the hydrogen within Vesta’s surface appears to be hydrated minerals delivered by carbon-rich space rocks that collided with Vesta at speeds slow enough to preserve their volatile content,” said Thomas Prettyman, lead scientist for Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) from the Planetary Science Institute.
A pitted terrain – looking much like potholes – mark where the volatiles, perhaps both hydroxyl and water, released from hydrated minerals boiled off.
Hydroxyl has recently been found on the Moon in permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles, and so the Dawn scientists thought there might be a chance that water ice may have hunkered down near the surface around the giant asteroid’s poles, as well. But unlike Earth’s Moon, however, Vesta has no permanently shadowed polar regions, and so the strongest signature for hydrogen actually came from regions near the equator. And there, water ice is not stable.
Two papers were published this week in the journal Science that are based on observations from the low-altitude mapping orbit of the Dawn mission, an orbit which averaged about 210 km (130 miles) above the surface. Dawn left Vesta earlier this month, and is now on its way to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres.
In addition to the paper authored by Prettyman and his team, a complementary paper, led by Brett Denevi, a Dawn participating scientist based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory describes the presence of pitted terrain created by the release of the volatiles.
In some cases, other space rocks crashed into these deposits later at high speed. The heat from the collisions converted the hydrogen bound to the minerals into water, which evaporated. The holes that were left as the water escaped stretch as much as 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) across and go down as deep as 700 feet (200 meters). Seen in images from Dawn’s framing camera, this pitted terrain is best preserved in sections of Marcia crater.
A distinctive “pitted terrain” observed by NASA’s Dawn mission on Vesta has also been seen on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/MPS/DLR/IDA/JHUAPL
“The pits look just like features seen on Mars, but while water was common on Mars, it was totally unexpected on Vesta in these high abundances,” said Denevi. “These results provide evidence that not only were hydrated materials present, but they played an important role in shaping the asteroid’s geology and the surface we see today.”
GRaND’s data are the first direct measurements describing the elemental composition of Vesta’s surface. Dawn’s elemental investigation by the instrument determined the ratios of iron to oxygen and iron to silicon in the surface materials. The new findings solidly confirm the connection between Vesta and a class of meteorites found on Earth called the Howardite, Eucrite and Diogenite meteorites, which have the same ratios for these elements. In addition, more volatile-rich fragments of other objects have been identified in these meteorites, which supports the idea that the volatile-rich material was deposited on Vesta.