Astro Challenge: Spotting 4 Vesta at its Best for Decades

The asteroid Vesta, courtesy of NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Meteorites ejected from Vesta may have helped form Earth's water. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA
Vesta
The brave new world of 4 Vesta, courtesy of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA

Up for a challenge? Planetary action is certainly heating up this summer: Jupiter passed opposition last month, Saturn does so in June, and Mars reaches favorable viewing next month. And with dazzling Venus in the west and Mercury to joining it starting in late June, we’ll soon have all of the naked eye classical planets in the evening sky.

Now, I want to turn your attention towards a potential naked eye object, one you’ve probably never seen: asteroid 4 Vesta.

Vesta
Vesta and the planet(s)… looking east in early June, about 45 minutes after sunset. Stellarium.

Vistas of Vesta

Vesta reaches opposition in 2018 on the night of June 19th. At 1.14 Astronomical Units (AU, 170.8 million kilometers) distant, this year’s opposition is slightly more favorable than any other since 1989. We won’t get another pass nearly as close until May 2036. Vesta orbits the Sun once every 3.6 years, ranging from a perihelion of 2.15 AU to an aphelion of 2.57 AU.

Although Vesta was the fourth asteroid discovered, it’s actually the brightest, and the only one visible with the naked eye—that is, if you have dark skies, and know exactly where to look for it. This summer, Vesta loiters in the star rich realm of the astronomical constellation Sagittarius, “in the weeds” for viewers up north, but high in the sky for southern viewers.

Vesta
The path of 4 Vesta through mid-September. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

Early June finds Vesta about 5 degrees northwest of the +3.8 magnitude star Mu Sagittarii, threading between the deep sky objects Messier 24 and Messier 25. Vesta then loops westward through the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer starting on July 1st, before heading back to Sagittarius on September 5th.

Vesta in 2018

Catching Vesta with the naked eye isn’t easy. You’ll need dark rural skies with a limiting magnitude down to about +5.5, and a good beforehand knowledge of the fixed stars in the region. Vesta also spends 2018 weaving around the star-dappled plane of the Milky Way galaxy, making it an especially challenging target.

Binoculars or a telescope can bring the challenge within reach of suburban and urban skies, making it a pleasure to trace the track of Vesta from night to night. Sketch the background star field and you just might tease out the presence of Vesta as it slowly moves about 30′ arcminutes per night (the diameter of a Full Moon) through June. Crank up the magnification a bit using a large (10 inches aperture or greater) light bucket telescope, and you just might see the faint hint of an oblong disk… 348 by 277 miles (560 by 446 kilometers) in size, Vesta’s apparent size is 0.7” arcseconds around opposition, 1/3 the size of Neptune at its best.

occultation vesta
The occultation footprint for the June 27th event. Credit: Occult 4.2 software.

The 99% illuminated, waxing gibbous Moon will actually occult 4 Vesta for Hawaii, Central America and the Galapagos Islands just eight days after opposition on the night of June 27th.

ceres vesta
Ceres (left) and Vesta (right) imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/HST/STl

Discovered on the night of March 29th, 1807 by prolific asteroid hunter Heinrich Olber, the Hubble Space Telescope gave us our first blurry images of 4 Vesta back in 2007. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft gave us our first good views of Vesta as a world starting in mid- 2011, orbiting the potato-shaped asteroid for just over a year before departing for 1 Ceres in late 2012.

The south pole Rheasilvia impact basin. Based on images obtained by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, the lower false color map shows the elevation scale scooped out by an ancient impact. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Attack of the Vestoid(s)

And did you know: we actually have identified samples of Vesta to study, right here on Earth. Vesta sustained a massive impact about a billion years ago, raining debris through the inner solar system. Dawn chronicled the resulting Rheasilvia impact basin on Vesta’s south pole, and asteroids such as 1981 Midas match the spectral composition of Vesta and are collectively known as “Vestoids”.

Vesta Meteorites
Meteorites recovered on Earth, courtesy of 4 Vesta. Credit: NASA/University of Tennessee.

On Earth, meteorites such as QUE 97053 found in Antarctica and the 1913 Moore County fall in North Carolina also match up in composition to Vesta, and make up a subgroup known as Howardite-Eucrite-Diogenite (HED) meteorites. Collectively, space rocks from this single impact on 4 Vesta contribute to an amazing 5% of all the meteorites recovered on Earth.

Fascinating thoughts to ponder, as we follow the brightest asteroid through the summer sky.

Amazingly Detailed New Maps of Asteroid Vesta

Vesta is one of the largest asteroids in the Solar System. Comprising 9% of the mass in the Asteroid Belt, it is second in size only to the dwarf-planet Ceres. And now, thanks to data obtained by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, Vesta’s surface has been mapped out in unprecedented detail.
These high-resolution geological maps reveal the variety of Vesta’s surface features and provide a window into the asteroid’s history.

“The geologic mapping campaign at Vesta took about two-and-a-half years to complete, and the resulting maps enabled us to recognize a geologic timescale of Vesta for comparison to other planets,” said David Williams of Arizona State University.

Geological mapping is a technique used to derive the geologic history of a planetary object from detailed analysis of surface morphology, topography, color and brightness information. The team found that Vesta’s geological history is characterized by a sequence of large impact events, primarily by the Veneneia and Rheasilvia impacts in Vesta’s early history and the Marcia impact in its late history.

The geologic mapping of Vesta was made possible by the Dawn spacecraft’s framing camera, which was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research of the German Max Planck Society and the German Aerospace Center.  This camera takes panchromatic images and seven bands of color-filtered images, which are used to create topographic models of the surface that aid in the geologic interpretation.

A team of 14 scientists mapped the surface of Vesta using Dawn data. The study was led by three NASA-funded participating scientists: Williams; R. Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute; and W. Brent Garry of the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center.

This high-res geological map of Vesta is derived from Dawn spacecraft data. Brown colors represent the oldest, most heavily cratered surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
This high-res geological map of Vesta is derived from Dawn spacecraft data. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The brown colored sections of the map represent the oldest, most heavily cratered surface. Purple colors in the north and light blue represent terrains modified by the Veneneia and Rheasilvia impacts, respectively. Light purples and dark blue colors below the equator represent the interior of the Rheasilvia and Veneneia basins. Greens and yellows represent relatively young landslides or other downhill movement and crater impact materials, respectively.

The map indicates the prominence of impact events – such as the Veneneia, Rheasilvia and Marcia impacts, respectively – in shaping the asteroid’s surface. It also indicates that the oldest crust on Vesta pre-dates the earliest Veneneia impact. The relative timescale is supplemented by model-based absolute ages from two different approaches that apply crater statistics to date the surface.

“This mapping was crucial for getting a better understanding of Vesta’s geological history, as well as providing context for the compositional information that we received from other instruments on the spacecraft: the visible and infrared (VIR) mapping spectrometer and the gamma-ray and neutron detector (GRaND),” said Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The objective of NASA’s Dawn mission is to characterize the two most massive objects in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter – Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres.

These Hubble Space Telescope images of Vesta and Ceres show two of the most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt, a region between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/European Space Agency
These Hubble Space Telescope images of Vesta and Ceres show two of the most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA/European Space Agency

Asteroids like Vesta are remnants of the formation of the solar system, giving scientists a peek at its early history. They can also harbor molecules that are the building blocks of life and reveal clues about the origins of life on Earth. Hence why scientists are eager to learn more about its secrets.

The Dawn spacecraft was launched in September of 2007 and orbited Vesta between July 2011 and September 2012. Using ion propulsion in spiraling trajectories to travel from Earth to Vesta, Dawn will orbit Vesta and then continue on to orbit the dwarf planet Ceres by April 2015.

The high resolution maps were included with a series of 11 scientific papers published this week in a special issue of the journal Icarus. The Dawn spacecraft is currently on its way to Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, and will arrive at Ceres in March 2015.

Further Reading: NASA

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

Dawn Discovers Surprise 2nd Giant South Pole Impact Basin at Strikingly Dichotomous Vesta

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Scientists leading NASA’s Dawn mission have discovered a 2nd giant impact basin at the south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta, which has been unveiled as a surprisingly “dichotomous” and alien world. Furthermore, the cosmic collisions that produced these two basins shuddered through the interior and created vast Vestan troughs, a Dawn scientist told Universe Today.

The newly discovered impact basin, nicknamed ‘Older Basin’, is actually significantly older in age compared to the initially discovered South Pole basin feature named ‘Rheasilvia’ – perhaps by more than a billion years. And that is just one of the many unexplained mysteries yet to be reconciled by the team as they begin to sift through the millions of bits of new data streaming back daily to Earth.

Scientists speculate that ‘Older Basin’ is on the order of 3.8 Billion years old, whereas ‘Rheasilvia’ might be as young as about 2.5 Billion years, but those are just tentative estimates at this time and subject to change. Measurements so far indicate Rheasilvia is composed of basaltic material.

Shaded-relief topographic map of Vesta southern hemisphere showing two large impact basins - Rheasilvia and Older Basin.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“We found many surprising things at Vesta, which is quite unique and the results have exceeded our expectations”, said Dr. Carol Raymond, Dawn deputy principal investigator, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Researchers presented the latest findings from Dawn’s initial science mapping orbit at a news briefing at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis, Minn., on Oct. 13.

The team considers Vesta to be the smallest terrestrial planet.

Since achieving orbit in July, Dawn’s Framing Cameras (FC) have imaged most of Vesta at about 250 meter resolution and the Visible and Infrared mapping spectrometer(VIR) at about 700 meter resolution. The measurements were collected at the survey orbit altitude of 2700 km. Before Dawn, Vesta was just a fuzzy blob in humankind’s most powerful telescopes.

Vesta from Hubble (top) as a fuzzy blob and from Dawn in orbit (bottom) in crystal clear high resolution.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“There is a global dichotomy on Vesta and a fundamental difference between the northern and southern hemispheres”, said Raymond. “The northern hemisphere is older and heavily cratered in contrast to the brighter southern hemisphere where the texture is more smooth and there are lots of sets of grooves. There is a massive mountain at the South Pole. One of the more surprising aspects is the set of deep equatorial troughs.”

“There is also a tremendous and surprising diversity of surface color and morphology. The south is consistent with basaltic lithology and the north with impacts. We are trying to make sense of the data and will integrate that with the high resolution observations we are now collecting.”

Indeed Vesta’s completely unique and striking dichotomy can be directly traced back to the basins which were formed by ancient cataclysmic impacts resulting in shockwaves that fundamentally altered the surface and caused the formation of the long troughs that ring Vesta at numerous latitudes.

“The troughs extend across 240 degrees of longitude,” said Debra Buczkowski, Dawn participating scientist, of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, Laurel, Md. “Their formation can be tied back to the two basins at the South Pole.”

Asteroid Vesta and Equatorial Grooves
This full view of the giant asteroid Vesta was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, as part of a rotation characterization sequence on July 24, 2011, at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). A rotation characterization sequence helps the scientists and engineers by giving an initial overview of the character of the surface as Vesta rotated underneath the spacecraft. This view of Vesta shows impact craters of various sizes and grooves parallel to the equator. The resolution of this image is about 500 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

In an exclusive follow up interview with Universe Today, Raymond said “We believe that the troughs formed as a direct result of the impacts,” said “The two sets of troughs are associated with the two large basins [Rheasilvia and Older Basin].”

“The key piece of evidence presented was that the set of troughs in the northern hemisphere, that look older (more degraded) are circumferential to the older impact basin,” Raymond told me.

“The equatorial set are circumferential to Rheasilvia. That Rheasilvia’s age appears in places to be much younger is at odds with the age of the equatorial troughs. An explanation for that could be resurfacing by younger mass wasting features (landslides, slumps). We will be working on clarifying all these relationships in the coming months with the higher resolution HAMO (High Altitude Mapping Orbit) data.”

Dawn has gradually spiraled down closer to Vesta using her exotic ion thrusters and began the HAMO mapping campaign on Sept. 29.

Surface features are dated by crater counting methodology.

“Preliminary crater counting age dates for the equatorial trough region yields a very old age (3.8 Billion years). So there is a discrepancy between the apparent younger age for the Rheasilvia basin and the old age for the troughs. These could be reconciled if Rheasilvia is also 3.8 Billion years old but the surface has been modified by slumping or other processes,” Raymond elaborated.

Time will tell as further data is analyzed.

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

“Vesta is full of surprises, no more so than at the South Pole,” said Paul Schenk at the GSA briefing. Schenk is a Dawn participating scientist of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, Texas.

The ‘Rheasilvia’ basin was initially discovered in images of Vesta taken a decade ago by the Hubble Space Telescope which revealed it as a gaping hole in the southern hemisphere. But it wasn’t until Dawn entered orbit on July 16, 2011 after a nearly four year interplanetary journey that Earthlings got their first close up look at the mysterious polar feature and can now scrutinize it in detail to elucidate its true nature.

“The South Pole [Rheasilvia] basin is a roughly circular, impact structure and a deep depression dominated by a large central mound,” said Schenk. “It shows sharp scarps, smooth areas, landslide deposits, debris flows. It’s about 475 km in diameter and one of the deepest (ca. 20 -25 km) impact craters in the solar system.”

The central peak is an enormous mountain, about 22 km high and 180 km across- one of the biggest in the solar system. “It’s comparable in some ways to Olympus Mons on Mars,” Schenk stated.

“We were quite surprised to see a second basin in the mapping data outside of Rheasilvia. This was unexpected. It’s called ‘Older Basin’ for now.”

‘Older Basin’ is about 375 km in diameter. They overlap at the place where Rheasilvia has a missing rim.

“These basins are interesting because we believe Vesta is the source of a large number of meteorites, the HED meteorites that have a spread of ages,” Schenk explained.

Images showing key components of Rheasilvia impact basin on Vesta in high resolution ,referred to Shaded-relief topographic map. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Multiple large impacts over time may explain the source of the HED (Howardite, Eucrite and Diogenite) meteorites.

“We did expect large impacts on Vesta, likely associated with the late heavy bombardment recognized in the lunar impact record,” Raymond told Universe Today. “The surprising element is that the two apparently largest impacts – keeping in mind that other larger impact basins may be lurking under the regolith – are overlapping.”

Dawn’s VIR spectrometer has detected pyroxene bands covering Vesta’s surface, which is indicative of typical basaltic material, said Federico Tosi, a VIR team member of the Italian Space Agency, Rome. “Vesta has diverse rock types on its surface.”

“VIR measured surface temperatures from 220K to 270 K at the 5 micron wavelength. The illuminated areas are warmer.”

So far there is no clear indication of olivine which would be a marker for seeing Vesta’s mantle, Tossi elaborated.

The VIR spectrometer combines images, spectral information and temperature that will allow researchers to evaluate the nature, composition and evolutionary forces that shaped Vesta’s surface.

The team is absolutely thrilled to see a complicated geologic record that’s been preserved for study with lots of apparent surface layering and surprisingly strong and complex structural features with a large range of color and brightness.

Stay tuned for a year of Vestan delights !

Asteroid Vesta from Dawn
South Pole Rheasilvia basin is at lower right. NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 24, 2011 from a distance of about 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 16, and will spend a year orbiting the body.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Read Ken’s continuing features about Dawn and Vesta starting here:
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

Amazing New View of the Mt. Everest of Vesta

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NASA has just released an amazing new view of the mysterious south pole of Vesta that offers an oblique perspective view of the central mountain peak which is three times as high as Mt Everest. This topographic view , shown above,is completely unique to viewers from Earth and is provided courtesy of NASA’s exotic Dawn Asteroid Orbiter – newly arrived in July 2011.

The mountain peak rises about 15 miles (22 km) above the average height of the surrounding pockmarked terrain at Vesta’s south polar region – formally named Rheasilvia – and is located in the foreground, left side of the new image. A portion of the crater rim with a rather steep slope – known as a scarp – is seen at the right and may show evidence of Vestan landslides.

This oblique image derived from the on board Framing Camera was created from a shape model of the 530 km diameter asteroid. It has been flattened to remove the curvature of Vesta and has a vertical scale adjusted to 1.5 times that of the horizontal scale.

The origin of Vesta’s south polar region is hotly debated among the mission’s science team who will reveal their current theories at a briefing set for October 12 – watch for my upcoming report.

Dawn will remain in orbit at Vesta for 1 year until July 2012 and then fire up its revolutionary ion propulsion system to depart for Ceres, the largest Asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Asteroid Vesta from Dawn
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). Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, and will spend a year orbiting the body. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Read Ken’s continuing features about Dawn and Vesta starting here
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

Dramatic 3 D Imagery Showcases Vesta’s Pockmarked, Mountainous and Groovy Terrain

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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.

3D Details of Wave-Like Terrain in the South Pole of Vesta
This image was obtained by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from an orbit of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) above the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta. Topography in the area surrounding Vesta's south pole area shows impact craters, ridges and grooves. These images in 3D provide scientists with a realistic impression of the solid surface of the celestial body.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Can you find the location of the 3 D image above in the 2 D South Pole image below?

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.

3D - A Big Mountain at Asteroid Vesta’s South Pole
Scientists were fascinated by this enormous mound inside a big circular depression at the south pole- dubbed Rheasilvia. This stereo image was recorded from an altitude of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) above the surface and shows the structure of the mountain, displayed in the right half of this 3D image. The base of the mountain has a diameter of about 125 miles (200 kilometers), and its altitude above the surroundings is about 9 miles (15 kilometers). The vicinity of the peak of the mountain shows landslides that occurred when material from the flanks of the mountain were slipping down. Also visible are tectonic structures from tension in Vesta's crust. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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?

Topography of Densely Cratered Deformed Terrain
This 3 D anaglyph image shows the topography of Vesta's densely cratered terrain obtained by the framing camera instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft on August 6, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Anaglyph 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
Vesta's Ancient, Cratered Surface in 3D
This image of the giant asteroid Vesta obtained by NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows the surface of the asteroid from an orbit of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) above the surface. Numerous impact craters illustrate the asteroid's violent youth. By counting craters on distinct geological surfaces scientists can deduce relative ages of the asteroid's surface. This 3D view provides scientists the opportunity to learn more about the morphology of craters on asteroids and physical properties of the material at Vesta's surface.. Image resolution is about 260 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Viewing the South Pole of Vesta and Rheasilvia Impact Basin
This image obtained by Dawns framing camera 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 next 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
Rhea Silvia, torso from the amphitheatre at Cartagena in Spain that was rediscovered in 1988. Rhea Silvia was the mother of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. Source: Wikipedia

Read Ken’s continuing features about Dawn and Vesta

Rheasilvia – Super Mysterious South Pole Basin at Vesta
Space Spectacular — Rotation Movies of Vesta
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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