A NASA spacecraft orbiting the huge asteroid Vesta is beaming home images that reveal the giant space rock like never before, showing its battered and pockmarked surface in stunning detail.
The new Vesta photos from the Dawn probe, which NASA unveiled today (Aug. 1), include the spacecraft's first full-frame view of the entire asteroid and should help astronomers understand how the space rock formed in the early solar system, researchers said.
"We could not imagine the detail we're seeing and the processes that we're seeing," said Chris Russell, Dawn's principal investigator at UCLA, during the announcement. [Photos: Asteroid Vesta and NASA's Dawn Spacecraft]
Earlier photos of Vesta have zeroed in on intriguing features on the space rock's surface, including the boundary between the day and night sides. NASA unveiled the new images today as the Dawn spacecraft begins its one-year science mission in earnest at Vesta.
Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, beginning a yearlong mission to orbit and study the asteroid. Vesta, the brightest asteroid in our solar system, is the second-largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The space rock measures about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across.
"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 in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.
Close observations of Vesta will help astronomers understand the early days of the solar system, as well as the processes that formed and shaped rocky planets like Earth.
NASA's $466 million Dawn mission is the first prolonged visit to a large asteroid. The spacecraft is expected to take detailed photos of Vesta, closely studying the giant rock from three different orbits.
"We have been calling Vesta the smallest terrestrial planet," Russell said in a statement. "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."
Due to Vesta's large size, many astronomers classify it as a protoplanet, saying it would have continued to develop into a rocky planet like Earth or Mars if Jupiter's gravity had not wreaked havoc in the asteroid belt long ago.
While Dawn has been gathering some science data, the mission's intensive collection of information is expected to begin this month. [How NASA's Dawn Asteroid Mission Works (Infographic)]
"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.
After spending a year at Vesta, Dawn will leave its orbit to travel to the asteroid Ceres, which is the largest body in the main asteroid belt. Ceres measures about 590 miles (950 km) across and is so large that it is considered to be a dwarf planet.
Dawn is expected to arrive at Ceres in February 2015.
NASA's Dawn mission is expected to return close-up views of Ceres, which should allow scientists to compare it to Vesta. Unlike the drier and more evolved Vesta, Ceres is considered to be more primitive and wet, possibly harboring water ice, researchers said.
The Dawn spacecraft launched in September 2007 and has since traveled more than 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion km).
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