Vesta asteroid shows shadowed top

Vesta (Nasa) The latest image was acquired last Saturday, and was taken from a distance of about 5,200km

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Nasa's Dawn spacecraft has returned a view of the giant asteroid Vesta's northern hemisphere.

The spacecraft acquired the image after making its first pass over the dark side of the rock since going into orbit two weeks ago.

Vesta's northern polar region is currently in the deep shadow of winter.

Dawn's best look at some of the surface features hidden in the picture are unlikely to come until the probe departs the rock in a year's time.

By then, Vesta should have shifted on its axis sufficiently to allow the Sun's rays to fall across some of its high-latitude mountains, valleys and craters.

"The north pole is in shadow now and when Dawn leaves it will be slightly illuminated," explained Prof Ulrich Christensen, from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany.

"We may get a glimpse of some features currently in darkness, but with the Sun still very low on the horizon lighting conditions may not be ideal," he told me.

In the meantime, there is plenty to occupy the Dawn team, which promises to deliver its first interpretation on Monday of some of the features seen in the earliest imagery.

Nasa has scheduled a media conference with the leading scientists at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. A parallel conference will take place in Germany, reflecting that country's key participation in the mission. The framing camera system was developed by the Max Planck Institute.

It is hoped the researchers will show us not just more pictures on Monday, but some colour ones as well. The framing camera system has a number of colour filters.

The mission's chief scientist, Dr Chris Russell from the University of California Los Angeles, told the BBC last week that the team had seen quite deep colouration in places - strong oranges and blues.

Vesta Ever closer: Last week's image release highlighted the southern pole from a distance of about 10,500km

Dawn entered into orbit around 530km-wide Vesta on 17 July, and will spend 12 months studying the rock before moving on to the biggest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter - the dwarf planet Ceres.

Both objects should have something to say about the earliest days of the Solar System. Scientists often describe asteroids as the rubble that was left over after the planets proper had formed.

I have to say, the Dawn mission has got me very excited. If you think about it, it's a while since we've seen a new world up close like this. Rosetta's pass of Lutetia last year was spectacular, but fleeting.

And even the major Saturnian moons encountered by Cassini this last decade had some half-decent imagery associated with them before the joint Nasa/Esa/Asi mission turned up.

Vesta seems very fresh, and Ceres should be even more remarkable.

Ceres, of course, will become the first dwarf planet to be visited by a spacecraft - before even Pluto can be passed by Nasa's New Horizons probe. That rendezvous is not due to occur until 2015.

Someone has just asked me in the office how long we can keep talking about new pictures from Dawn at Vesta. The inference being: it's just a big hunk of rock. A while yet, I'd say.

There's a certain fascination with asteroids. That's borne out by Thursday's news about an 200-300m-wide asteroid not far from Earth that is moving in the same orbit around the Sun. It proved to be the day's most read story on the BBC News website.

Dumb, dull rocks? I don't think so.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    That's because they are still being adjusted to show what the experts 'think' the colours should be. Nobody has been to Vesta, so no-one knows what it's true colours are.
    The same thing happens for pics from Mars, Venus, moons of Saturn, Jupiter, etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Why is NASA witholding the colour images? It seems very strange to me that they say the colour photo's have been taken and yet they have no intention of showing anybody those.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    As long as they can keep producing pretty pictures, I will keep looking at them. A long as they keep making new discoveries I shall read about them

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Current meteor forecast projects a strong Draconid outburst, possibly a full-blown storm, on Oct. 8, 2011. Tiny meteoroids streaked through Earth's atmosphere for a few hours on Feb. 4. The "shooting stars" arrived from the direction of the star Eta Draconis, so the shower is called the February Eta Draconids, or FEDs for short.
    What are we looking for in October, 2011?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @geolith. Fixed. I'm indebted. Got a little too excited, me thinks. JA

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Stark difference daytime & night on Vesta. Dawn snapped images Vesta on July 18 from a distance of @ 6,500 miles, as it traveled across the asteroid's terminator — the boundary between the day & night sides. Asteroid turns on its axis once every 5 hours & 20 minutes. Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, beginning a year-long mission to orbit & study Vesta. It measures @ 330 miles across.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The asteroids are perhaps the most important bodies in the solar system aside from our own world. The accessible mineral wealth contained within them is vast in scope, far greater than that of all the deepest mines on Earth combined. Of course this is important, this is the trailblazer for where the miners of tomorrow will live and work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "That's borne out by Thursday's news about an 200-300km-wide asteroid not far from Earth that is moving in the same orbit around the Sun."

    Now, that would indeed be news. Unfortunately, a one letter edit is required: the km is only a lonely m.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Meteorites from Vesta are actually relatively common. There's a class of meteorites called the HEDs (Howardites, eucrites and diogenites) that are linked to Vesta, there are about 1000 of them listed in the meteoritical bulletin.

    Part of the reason the Dawn mission is so interesting is that it will allow us to test what we already think about Vesta from these meteorites.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    This picture has clearly been Photoshop'd! Older pictures show more wrinkles on the top and bottom of the face! The wrinkles and dimples on the surface we see here don't even look natural! I'm calling it first, this has clearly been the work several Botox treatments throughout the years! Fake! (Ha! Aliens! On an asteroid! Whatever! Catapults can't go that far. It isn't even anywhere near Mexico!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Someone has just asked me in the office how long we can keep talking about new pictures from Dawn at Vesta. The inference being: it's just a big hunk of rock.
    Then of course there are the alien asteriod bases hidden away on the dark side that NASA will photoshop out of any pictures released to the public ;-) lol. Colour pictures will cause a stir tho....

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The smaller worlds of the Solar System are some of the most interesting. Europa, Io, Titan, Enceladus, and Triton were full of surprises. Expect more surprises from Vesta and Ceres (and Pluto and Charon). A brilliant success for NASA. Lets have more missions like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    1960 piece fell in Australia. It was torn off Vesta's surface as part of larger fragment. Likely, other collisions broke apart parent fragment throwing pieces toward the Kirkwood Gap, & onto a collision course toward Earth. I believe meteorites found in other locations on Earth are likely from Vesta, too.
    You're right: interesting stuff!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Piece of Vesta fell to earth @ 1960. Piece was traced back to asteroid because chemical identity has same pyroxene spectral signature. Pyroxine is common in lava flows. Apparently, meteorite was created in ancient lava flow on Vesta's surface. Isotopes (oxygen atoms, varying number of neutrons) are unlike isotopes found for all other rocks of the Earth, Moon & most other meteorites.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Someone has just asked me in the office how long we can keep talking about new pictures from Dawn at Vesta. The inference being: it's just a big hunk of rock.


    These are the first high resolution images of a celestial body. We are the first people in (hopefully) thousands of years of human exploration to see its detailed surface. This stuff is cool.



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