- Vesta is one of the largest asteroids
- Dawn mission will spend a year investigating it
- First close-up images now coming in
AFTER TRAVELLING NEARLY FOUR YEARS and 2.8 billion kilometres, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been captured by the Vesta’s gravity. The giant asteroid and its new companion are currently approximately 184 million kilometres from Earth.
The first spacecraft to orbit an object in the main asteroid belt, Dawn is now spiralling down towards its first of four intensive science orbits. That initial orbit of the rocky world—to begin on August 11, at an altitude of nearly 2,700 kilometres—will provide in-depth analysis of the asteroid.
Vesta, 530 kilometres wide, is the brightest object in the asteroid belt as seen from Earth and is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth.
The smallest rocky ‘planet’
Images from Dawn’s framing camera, taken for navigation purposes and as preparation for scientific observations, are revealing the first surface details of the giant asteroid. These images go all the way around Vesta, since the giant asteroid turns on its axis once every five hours and 20 minutes.
“Now that we are in orbit around one of the last unexplored worlds in the inner Solar System, we can see that it’s a unique and fascinating place,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“We have been calling Vesta the smallest terrestrial planet,” said Chris Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator at UCLA. “The latest imagery provides much justification for our expectations.”
“They show that a variety of processes were once at work on the surface of Vesta and provide extensive evidence for Vesta’s planetary aspirations.”
Here’s a short video showing the different faces of Vesta as it rotates:
“The new observations of Vesta are an inspirational reminder of the wonders unveiled through ongoing exploration of our Solar System,” said Jim Green, planetary division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Dawn launched in September 2007. Following a year at Vesta, the spacecraft will depart in July 2012 for Ceres, where it will arrive in 2015.
More information: NASA’s Dawn mission pages
Adapted from information issued by NASA. Images courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA.
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