Huge celebrations at NASA this morning, when signals from the ion-propelled DAWN space probe confirmed it had entered orbit around the huge asteroid Vesta. Initially NASA shouted – well, Tweeted! – from the rooftops that this was an incredible achievement because DAWN was the first probe to go into orbit around an asteroid, but then, after it was pointed out to them that, (cough), er, um, NASA’s own NEAR had orbited asteroid Eros and the Japanese Hyabusa probe had orbited asteroid Itokawa, they clarified that to say that DAWN was the first probe to orbit a main belt asteroid.
DAWN will now spend a year studying Vesta from orbit, taking lots of images and scientific measurements, before powering up her Starfleet Warp 0.0000000001 ion engine and setting off for the much larger body Ceres, now officially classified as a dwarf planet. By the time DAWN leaves Vesta we should have comprehensively mapped and charted Vesta, given names to its features, and gained an understanding of how it formed and why it looks the way it does.
And “the way it looks” is pretty incredible. Until Hubble came along we had only ever really seen Vesta as a few pixels of light on ccd images taken by the best optical telescopes. Then Hubble showed us Vesta had a strange shape, mostly round but with the bottom lopped off to leave it flattened, but with something of a peak…y…thing jutting out of it. Something like this…
Then DAWN was launched in September 2007, and we all began looking forward to her first images. When they came in – well, when they were released, there was, as many of you will know, quite a gap between the images being taken and being set free into the wild – the images hinted at the presence of craters and peaks on the asteroid’s surface. More images were released…painfully slowly…and with each one we saw more and more of Vesta’s surface. Yes, there definitely were craters down there, and yes, the southern region did look flattened…
Late last week another image was set free by the DAWN team, the most detailed ever taken (at that time), and it showed some really fascinating features…
As usual, I thought I’d have a play about with that image, try and sharpen it up a bit and bring out some of the details a little more clearly. .. (My efforts didn’t turn out too badly, if I say so myself, but these image manipulations are ALWAYS done for my own enjoyment and curiosity, in the knowledge that they can artificially enhance faults and artefacts in the original image. But see what you think… if the next image isn’t flicking between two different views, a Before and After thing, just click on it, ok?)
More images will be released soon, and I can’t wait for those to appear on the internet. I’m really looking forward to seeing those craters, mountains and strange landforms in more detail!
But I don’t actually need DAWN images to show me Vesta close up, because, well, I’ve got a piece of it of my own. Yes, I have a piece of Vesta right here with me, on this very table. It’s not huge, it doesn’t look particularly impressive in its own right, but it is a piece of the very body you can see on those images above.
My little piece of Vesta is actually a little piece of one of a group of rocks which were blasted off Vesta at some point in the past. A few of these rocks fell to the ground in Australia in October 1960, and became known as the “Millbillillie meteorites”. Many years later, Bev, one of my best friends, who lives in Australia, sent me a piece of one of these meteorites as a birthday present, so thanks to her I now own a small piece of the asteroid which DAWN is going to spend the next year studying!
Here it is…
I don’t care that it’s only small, it’s A PIECE OF VESTA!!!!!! That picture, above? THAT’S A PIECE OF VESTA!!!!!!!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s very cool. To actually be able to hold, in my hand, a piece of an object being studied and explored by a space probe, to be able to look at the images on my computer screen as they come in, and then hold, in my hand, a piece of the thing in the photograph… well, thanks again Bev!
So, DAWN has arrived at Vesta, and now the hard work begins. I hope that the images are released more freely and more frequently now, there’s really no excuse for them to be hoarded and hidden away from us now, not in 2011. The mission’s best friends are the space enthusiasts who will spread the word about DAWN’s mission and share the images with their Facebook, Twitter and astronomy forum friends, show them in schools and to community groups, and to their families and friends at work. That’s how the world works now, and I’m confident that now DAWN has entered orbit around Vesta the images will start to flow. Soon we’ll have names for Vesta’s craters, basins and mountains, and a whole new world will be opened up before our eyes.
In the meantime, you’ll have to excuse me – I’m going to have another look at *my* piece of Vesta… 🙂
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