Astrobiology Top 10: Dawn Reveals Secrets of Vesta's History
Spacecraft images, taken 420 miles (680 kilometers) and 130 miles (210 kilometers) above the surface of the asteroid, show a variety of surface mineral and rock patterns. Coded false-color images help scientists better understand Vesta's composition and enable them to identify material that was once molten below the asteroid's surface.
Researchers also see breccias, which are rocks fused during impacts from space debris. Many of the materials seen by Dawn are composed of iron- and magnesium-rich minerals, which often are found in Earth's volcanic rocks. Images also reveal smooth pond-like deposits, which might have formed as fine dust created during impacts settled into low regions.
At the Tarpeia crater near the south pole of the asteroid, Dawn revealed bands of minerals that appear as brilliant layers on the crater's steep slopes. The exposed layering allows scientists to see farther back into the geological history of the giant asteroid.
The layers closer to the surface bear evidence of contamination from space rocks bombarding Vesta's surface. Layers below preserve more of their original characteristics. Frequent landslides on the slopes of the craters also have revealed other hidden mineral patterns.
"These results from Dawn suggest Vesta's 'skin' is constantly renewing," said Maria Cristina De Sanctis, lead of the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer team based at Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome.
Dawn obtained the highest-resolution surface temperature maps of any asteroid visited by a spacecraft. Data reveal temperatures can vary from as warm as -10 degrees Fahrenheit (-23 degrees Celsius) in the sunniest spots to as cold as -150 degrees Fahrenheit (-100 degrees Celsius) in the shadows. This is the lowest temperature measurable by Dawn. These findings show the surface responds quickly to illumination with no mitigating effect of an atmosphere.
"After more than nine months at Vesta, Dawn's suite of instruments has enabled us to peel back the layers of mystery that have surrounded this giant asteroid since humankind first saw it as just a bright spot in the night sky," said Carol Raymond, Dawn deputy principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. "We are closing in on the giant asteroid's secrets."
Launched in 2007, Dawn began its exploration of the approximately 330-mile- (530-kilometer-) wide asteroid in mid-2011. The spacecraft's next assignment will be to study the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015. These two icons of the asteroid belt have been witness to much of our solar system's history.