Image of the giant asteroid Vesta taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft

Dear Upside Dawn Readers,

Dawn is now seeing Vesta in a new light. Once again the probe is diligently mapping the ancient protoplanet it has been orbiting for nearly a year. Circling the alien world about twice a day, the ardent adventurer is observing the signatures of Vesta's tortured history, including the scars accumulated during more than 4.5 billion years in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Having successfully completed its orbital raising maneuvers to ascend to its second high-altitude mapping orbit (HAMO2), Dawn looks down from about 680 kilometers (420 miles). This is the same height from which it mapped Vesta at the end of September and October 2011. The lifeless rocky landscape has not changed since then, but its appearance to the spacecraft's sensors has. The first high-altitude mapping orbit (HAMO1) was conducted shortly after southern hemisphere summer began on Vesta, so the sun was well south of the equator. That left the high northern latitudes in the deep darkness of winter night. With its slower progression around the sun than Earth, seasons on Vesta last correspondingly longer. Thanks to Dawn's capability to linger in orbit, rather than simply conduct a brief reconnaissance as it speeds by on its way to its next destination, the probe now can examine the surface with different lighting.

Much of the terrain that was hidden from the sun, and thus the camera, during HAMO1 is now illuminated. Even the scenery that was visible then is lit from a different angle now, so new observations will reveal many new details. In addition to the seasonal northward shift in the position of the sun, Dawn's orbit is oriented differently in HAMO2, as described last month, so that makes the opportunity for new insights and discoveries even greater.

The strategy for mapping Vesta is the same in HAMO2 now as it was in HAMO1. Dawn's orbital path takes it nearly over the north pole. (As we saw last month, the orbit does not go exactly over the poles but rather reaches to 86 degrees latitude. That slight difference is not important for this discussion.) During the ship's southward passage over the sunlit side, the camera and the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) acquire their precious data. After passing (almost) above the south pole, Dawn sails north over the night side. Instead of pointing its sensors at the deep black of the ground below, the probe aims its main antenna to the extremely distant Earth and radios its findings to the exquisitely sensitive receivers of the Deep Space Network. The pattern repeats as the indefatigable spacecraft completes loop after loop after loop around the gigantic asteroid every 12.3 hours.

As Dawn revolves, Vesta rotates on its axis beneath it, turning once every 5.3 hours. Just as in HAMO1, mission planners artfully choreographed this celestial pas de deux so that over the course of 10 orbits, lasting just over five days, the camera would be able to view nearly all of the lit surface. A set of 10 orbits is known to Dawn team members (and to you, loyal readers) as a mapping cycle.

Until a few months ago, HAMO2 was planned to be four cycles. Thanks to the determination in April that Dawn could extend its residence at Vesta and still meet its 2015 appointment with dwarf planet Ceres, HAMO2 has been increased to six mapping cycles (plus even a little more, as we shall see below), promising a yet greater scientific return.

In cycle 1, which began on June 23, the camera was pointed at the surface directly underneath the spacecraft. The same view will be obtained in cycle 6. In cycles 2 through 5, images are acquired at other angles, providing different perspectives on the complex and dramatic landscape. Scientists combine the pictures to formulate topographical maps, revealing Vesta's full three-dimensional character from precipitous cliffs and towering peaks of enormous mountains to gently rolling plains and areas with mysterious ridges and grooves to vast troughs and craters punched deep into the crust. Knowing the elevations of the myriad features and the angles of slopes is essential to understanding the geological processes and forces that shaped this exotic mini-planet. In addition to the exceptional scientific value, the stereo imagery provides realistic, exciting views for anyone who wants to visualize this faraway world. If you have not traveled there yourself, be sure to visit the Image of the Day regularly and the video gallery occasionally to see what you and the rest of humankind had been missing during the two centuries of Vesta's appearance being only that of a faint, tiny blob in the night sky.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman's Dawn Journal

TAGS:DAWN, CERES, VESTA, DWARF PLANETS, SOLAR SYSTEM, MISSION, SPACECRAFT

  • Marc Rayman