Rainbow of Colors Reveal Asteroid Vesta as More Like a Planet

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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.

Dawn is the first man-made probe to go into orbit around Vesta.

Comparative View of Terrains on Vesta - Oppia Crater
This image of Oppia Crater combines two separate views of the giant asteroid Vesta obtained by Dawn's framing camera. The far-left image uses near-infrared filters where red is used to represent 750 nanometers, green represents 920 nanometers and blue represents 980 nanometers. The image on the right is an image with colors assigned by scientists, representing different rock or mineral types on Vesta. The data reveal a world of many varied, well-separated layers and ingredients. The reddish color suggests a steep visible spectral slope, and areas of fresh landslides in the inner walls of the crater show deeper green colors. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“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.

Fresh Impact Craters on Asteroid Vesta
The fresh impact craters in this view are located in the south polar region, which has been partly covered by landslides from the adjacent crater. This would suggest that a layer of loose material covers the Vesta surface. This image combines two separate views of the giant asteroid Vesta obtained by Dawn’s framing camera. The far-left image uses near-infrared filters where red is used to represent 750 nanometers, green represents 920 nanometers and blue represents 980 nanometers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

Southern Hemisphere of Vesta -Rheasilvia and Older Basin
Colorized shaded-relief map showing location of 375-kilometer-wide Older impact basin that is overlapping with the more recent 500 km (300 mi) wide Rheasilvia impact structure at asteroid Vesta’s South Pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Asteroid Vesta from Dawn - Exquisite Clarity from a formerly Fuzzy Blob
NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 24, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). Before Dawn, Vesta was just a fuzzy blob in the most powerful telescopes. Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, and will spend a year orbiting the body before firing up the ion propulsion system to break orbit and speed to Ceres, the largest Asteroid. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:

Vrooming over Vivid Vestan Vistas in Vibrant 3 D – Video
NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Dawn Discovers Surprise 2nd Giant South Pole Impact Basin at Strikingly Dichotomous Vesta
Amazing New View of the Mt. Everest of Vesta
Dramatic 3 D Imagery Showcases Vesta’s Pockmarked, Mountainous and Groovy Terrain
Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin
First Ever Vesta Vistas from Orbit – in 2D and 3D
Dawn Exceeds Wildest Expectations as First Ever Spacecraft to Orbit a Protoplanet – Vesta

Vrooming over Vivid Vestan Vistas in Vibrant 3 D – Video

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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.

Asteroid Vesta and Mysterious Equatorial Grooves - from Dawn Orbiter
This full view of the giant asteroid Vesta was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on July 24, 2011, at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). This view shows impact craters of various sizes and mysterious grooves parallel to the equator. The resolution of this image is about 500 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.

3 D of the ‘Snowman' Crater
This anaglyph image shows the topography of Vesta's three craters, informally named the "Snowman," obtained by the framing camera instrument aboard Dawn on August 6, 2011. The camera has a resolution of about 260 meters per pixel.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.”

3 D Image of Vesta's South Polar Region
This anaglyph image of the south polar region was taken on July 9, 2011 by the framing camera instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Each pixel in this image corresponds to roughly 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers). The anaglyph image shows the rough topography in the south polar area, the large mountain, impact craters, grooves, and steep scarps in three dimensions.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:

NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Dawn Discovers Surprise 2nd Giant South Pole Impact Basin at Strikingly Dichotomous Vesta
Amazing New View of the Mt. Everest of Vesta
Dramatic 3 D Imagery Showcases Vesta’s Pockmarked, Mountainous and Groovy Terrain
Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin
First Ever Vesta Vistas from Orbit – in 2D and 3D
Dawn Exceeds Wildest Expectations as First Ever Spacecraft to Orbit a Protoplanet – Vesta

Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta is Named after Romulus and Remus Roman Mother

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.
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‘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.”

Viewing the South Pole of Vesta and Rheasilvia Impact Basin
This image obtained by Dawns framing camera and shows the south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta. Scientists are discussing whether the Rheasilvia circular structure that covers most of this image originated by a collision with another asteroid, or by internal processes early in the asteroid's history. Images in higher resolution from Dawn's lowered orbit might help answer that question. The image was recorded from a distance of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers). The image resolution is about 260 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.”

Impressive South Pole MountainTop at Rheasilvia Crater on Vesta
This mountain, which measures about 125 miles (200 kilometers) in diameter at its base, is one of the highest elevations on all known bodies with solid surfaces in the solar system. The image has been recorded with the framing camera aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft from a distance of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers). The image resolution is about 260 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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

Read Ken’s continuing features about Dawn
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
3 D Alien Snowman Graces Vesta
NASA Unveils Thrilling First Full Frame Images of Vesta from Dawn
Dawn Spirals Down Closer to Vesta’s South Pole Impact Basin
First Ever Vesta Vistas from Orbit – in 2D and 3D
Dawn Exceeds Wildest Expectations as First Ever Spacecraft to Orbit a Protoplanet – Vesta
Dawn Closing in on Asteroid Vesta as Views Exceed Hubble
Dawn Begins Approach to Asteroid Vesta and Snaps First Images
Revolutionary Dawn Closing in on Asteroid Vesta with Opened Eyes

Dawn Exceeds Wildest Expectations as First Ever Spacecraft to Orbit a Protoplanet – Vesta

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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.”

Image of Vesta Captured by Dawn on July 9, 2011. NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on July 9, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 26,000 miles (41,000 kilometers) away from the protoplanet Vesta. Each pixel in the image corresponds to roughly 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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.”

NASA's Dawn spacecraft, illustrated in this artist's concept, is propelled by ion engines to Protoplanets Vesta and Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL

“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.

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

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.

Dawn Infographic Poster - click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

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.

Dawn Trajectory and Current Location in orbit at Vesta on July 18, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL

Read my prior features about Dawn
Dawn Closing in on Asteroid Vesta as Views Exceed Hubble
Revolutionary Dawn Closing in on Asteroid Vesta with Opened Eyes

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