18Dec2011

 Unveiling Spectacular Alien World Vesta

Pic: This artist's concept shows NASA's Dawn spacecraft heading to the giant asteroid Vesta. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn's framing cameras. Dawn is an international collaboration of the US, Germany and Italy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Dawn Asteroid Orbiter successfully spiraled down today to the closest orbit the probe will ever achieve around the giant asteroid Vesta, and has now begun critical science observations that will ultimately yield the mission’s highest resolution measurements of this spectacular body.

“What can be more exciting than to explore an alien world that until recently was virtually unknown!” Dr. Marc Rayman gushed in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and a protégé of Star Trek’s Mr. Scott.

Before Dawn, Vesta was little more than a fuzzy blob in the world’s most powerful telescopes. Vesta is the second most massive object in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Dawn is now circling about Vesta at the lowest planned mapping orbit, dubbed LAMO for Low Altitude Mapping Orbit.

The spacecraft is orbiting at an average altitude of barely 130 miles (210 kilometers) above the heavily bombarded and mysterious world that stems from the earliest eons of our solar system some 4.5 Billion years ago. Each orbit takes about 4.3 hours.

Pic: Dawn Orbiting Over Vesta – A Hi Res Taste of What's Ahead!

“It is both gratifying and exciting that Dawn has been performing so well,” Rayman said.

Dawn arrived in orbit at Vesta in July 2011 after a nearly 4 year interplanetary cruise since blasting off atop a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida in September 2007. The probe then spent the first few weeks at an initial science survey altitude of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers).

Gradually the spaceship spiraled down closer to Vesta using her ion propulsion thrusters.

Along the way, the international science and engineering team commanded Dawn to make an intermediate stop this past Fall 2011 at the High Altitude Mapping orbit altitude (420 miles, or 680 kilometers).

“It is so cool now to have reached this low orbit [LAMO]. We already have a spectacular collection of images and other fascinating data on Vesta, and now we are going to gain even more,” Rayman told me.

“We have a great deal of work ahead to acquire our planned data here, and I’m looking forward to every bit! Dawn will spend a minimum of 10 weeks acquiring data at the LAMO mapping orbit using all three onboard science instruments, provided by the US, Germany and Italy.

While the framing cameras (FC) from Germany and the Visible and Infrared Mapping spectrometer (VIR) from Italy will continue to gather mountains of data at their best resolution yet, the primary science focus of the LAMO orbit will be to collect data from the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) and the gravity experiment.

GRaND will measure the elemental abundances on the surface of Vesta by studying the energy and neutron by-products that emanate from it as a result of the continuous bombardment of cosmic rays. The best data are obtained at the lowest altitude.

By examining all the data in context, scientists hope to obtain a better understanding of the formation and evolution of the early solar system. Vesta is a proto-planet, largely unchanged since its formation, and whose evolution into a larger planet was stopped cold by the massive gravitational influence of the planet Jupiter.

“Dawn’s visit to Vesta has been eye-opening so far, showing us troughs and peaks that telescopes only hinted at,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator, based at UCLA. “It whets the appetite for a day when human explorers can see the wonders of asteroids for themselves.”

After investigating Vesta for about a year, the engineers will ignite Dawn’s ion propulsion thrusters and blast away to Ceres, the largest asteroid which may harbor water ice and is another potential outpost for extraterrestrial life Dawn will be the first spaceship to orbit two worlds and is also the first mission to study the asteroid belt in detail. Source: Universe Today

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Rainbow of Colors Reveal Asteroid Vesta as More Like a Planet

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