Astrobiology Top 10: Dawn Reveals Secrets of Vesta’s History
This story was originally published on April 28, 2012)
These composite images from the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft show three views of a terrain with ridges and grooves near Aquilia crater in the southern hemisphere of the giant asteroid Vesta. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Findings from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft reveal new details about the giant asteroid Vesta, including its varied surface composition, sharp temperature changes and clues to its internal structure. The findings were presented today at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna, Austria and will help scientists better understand the early Solar System and processes that dominated its formation. Studying the physical properties and composition of asteroids can also help astrobiologists understand the role such objects could have played in delivering materials for the origin of life to the early Earth.
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.
These images of Tarpeia crater, near the south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta, were obtained by the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/INAF
"Dawn now enables us to study the variety of rock mixtures making up Vesta’s surface in great detail," said Harald Hiesinger, a Dawn participating scientist at Muenster University in Germany. "The images suggest an amazing variety of processes that paint Vesta’s surface."
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.
This colorized image from NASA’s Dawn mission shows temperature variations at Tarpeia crater, near the south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/INAF
Dawn has given scientists a near 3-D view into Vesta’s internal structure. By making ultrasensitive measurements of the asteroid’s gravitational tug on the spacecraft, Dawn can detect unusual densities within its outer layers. Data now show an anomalous area near Vesta’s south pole, suggesting denser material from a lower layer of Vesta has been exposed by the impact that created a feature called the Rheasilvia basin. The lighter, younger layers coating other parts of Vesta’s surface have been blasted away in the basin.
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.