NASA's Dawn spacecraft became the first ship to orbit the giant asteroid Vesta last week, and also was able to photograph the asteroid capturing more detail of its surface than ever before.
Dawn is the first probe to enter into the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter where the Vesta is located.
Vesta is 330 miles in diameter making it the second largest object in the asteroid belt. Ground and space telescopes were able to obtain images of the Vesta for the past two centuries due to its massive size, but after receiving the new images from Dawn, the surface of Vesta can now be viewed with great detail.
“We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system,” said Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell from the University of California Los Angeles.
Dawn has taken over 500 pictures of the Vesta since entering its orbit and will begin collecting science data next week once it is positioned 1,700 miles from the surface of the asteroid. The data they will collect will give insight into one of the oldest surfaces in space. It could also help pave the way for man’s space missions in the future.
“This region of space has been ignored for far too long. So far, the images received to date reveal a complex surface which seems to have preserved some of the earliest events in Vesta’s history, as well as logging the onslaught that Vesta has suffered in the intervening eons,” said Russell.
Vesta is said to be the source for a large number of meteorites falling to Earth, a planet the asteroid is located 117 million miles away from.
Dawn reached the asteroid after traveling for nearly four years. Due to its ion engines, which expel ions to create thrust, it also accomplished the largest propulsion acceleration of any spacecraft changing its velocity more than 4.2 miles per second.
“Dawn slipped gently into orbit with the same grace it has displayed during its years of ion thrusting through interplanetary space,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California. “It’s fantastically exciting that we will begin providing humankind its first detailed views of one of the last unexplored worlds of the inner solar system.”
Dawn launched in 2007 and is on the first mission sent to explore Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres, the two largest members of the asteroid belt.
Dawn will circle Vesta for a year and then move on to Ceres which it expects to arrive to in 2015.