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The Revelation of Vesta..!

No, that’s not another Dr Who book – great title though! I’m referring to something that’s happening Out There, way out in the Deep Black, far away from Earth…

As you read this, the DAWN spaceprobe is slowly but surely closing-in on Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the solar system, waaaay bigger than any asteroid visited and explored by any spaceprobe before. The first images are starting to come back…and they’re fascinating!

Okay. Before going any further, I feel duty bound to be honest and lay my cards on the table here about the issue of the DAWN team’s image release policy. Until yesterday, it had stunk, stunk worse than three week old bottle of milk, worse than a six week old fish, worse than… well, you get the idea. Why? Well, in glaring contrast to the policy of image release followed by other missions, such as the Mars Exploration Rovers and CASSINI (i.e. basically throw everything onto galleries on the net as quickly as possible so people can enjoy looking at them and working with them, if that’s their thing), the DAWN image release policy has been, well, to not release any images. We had one image a few weeks back, showing Vesta as an over-exposed blob in the top right corner of a starfield, and until yesterday that was it. The mission simply refused to release any more image,s preferring, they said, to save them for later, when they’d look a lot more impressive. Cue a big internet campaign/rant/moan, with lots of armchair explorers and space enthusiasts raging on Twitter and Facebook about how unfair and unwise it was, how selfish it was, how times had changed and it wasn’t right to horde images in this way.

I agree wholeheartedly with this point of view. I believe that it is now unacceptable for the teams behind space missions to withold images from the people who essentially pay FOR those missions through their taxes – the public.

You see, I think of it this way: if a wedding photographer offered to take photographs of your big day, but only if you bought them the most expensive digital SLR in the shop, how would you feel if they then took thousands of pictures but only let you see a few, and kept all the rest, and kept the camera too? That’s exactly what this image release policy is like. Space missions are paid for with taxes, money from the pockets, the wage packets, of people like you and I, so surely it is only fair for us to see the pictures taken with the kit our money bought?

But there’s another reason why I believe prompt and generous image release is essential and should be obligatory: if we can’t see the pictures being taken by these machines, we don’t feel involved with the missions, we don’t feel part of them.

And many people now want to be! There’s a huge demand for images taken by spaceprobes now, an almost voracious appetite for them. Every space blogger, Facebooker and Tweeter wants to see them and share them with their readers. Outreach educators like myself want to show them in our illustrated talks, in schools and to community groups. Why? because these missions to Saturn, Mars, asteroids and comets are the 21st century’s voyages of exploration and adventure. They’re incredible journeys into danger, the reward for which is new knowledge and pictures of amazing places.

The scientists behind the MER mission, like Steve Squyres and Jim Bell, Got It. They realised that by looking at the images taken by Spirit and Opportunity over the past seven years people around the world would be able to walk across Mars virtually themselves, alongside the rovers. And they’ve done that in their hundreds of thousands, checking websites every day to see the latest views of Mars. CASSINI followers check that mission’s “raw images” page daily, to drool over the latest images of the planet’s rings, moons and storms. It was so slap-across-the-face obviously the right way to do things.

I was hoping for the same from DAWN, but sadly that’s not going to be the case. We’re going to be shown images once a week or so, at least at first. And I think that’s both a great shame and a huge mistake. A shame because it means there’ll be less public engagement with the mission – and a mistake because if/when the time comes for DAWN to request an extension to its mission, it might not be to their credit how they were so reluctant, for whatever reason, to share their pictures with everyone else.

BUT… at least the dam has broken, or cracked open a little, and the first approach images have been released. And there’s been such a huge positive reaction to them, and such a surge of interest in the mission that surely, SURELY the DAWN team will see the wisdom of releasing their images as generously and quickly as possible from now on..? I guess we’ll have to just wait and see, but I’m quietly optimistic… 🙂

So, the pictures! Here’s what Vesta looked like to DAWN on June 1st…

Now, that might not look much – just a fuzzy, blurry blobby…thing… – but it’s almost as good as Hubble can see Vesta, and it shows us, however indistinctly, some features on Vesta’s surface. That dark, circular area near the centre is probably a crater, and there appears to be some sort of raised ridge to its left. Fascinating!

These images were taken on June 1st… almost two weeks ago… so DAWN is now a lot closer to Vesta, and is seeing it and its surface much more clearly too. The next images to be released – whenever that happens – will almost certainly show some new features on its surface, looking a lot sharper and crisper, too. And as the days pass we’ll gradually see more and more detail, until Vesta is revealed in all its glory – a genuine “new world” for us all to explore together. I can’t wait!

So, congratulations to the DAWN team, and a huge THANK YOU!!! for letting us see the first “close-up” images! They promise amazing things to come, and I’m really looking forward to seeing Vesta’s craters, mountains, ridges and plains revealed before our eyes in the days and weeks ahead. It’s not often now that we get to see a major solar system body for the first time – most of the solar system’s most interesting places have been visited and recced by now – so this is goinmg to be a very exciting time, and iy’ll be great fun joining in the adventure as Vesta’s surface comes into clear view and we start to name the features wee on it, mapping a(nother) New World…

To follow the DAWN mission to Vesta (and Ceres beyond it), go here:

http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov

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