NASA Dawn’s Star Trek Adventure at Vesta

The Starship Enterprise of television and movie fame is the fictional analog to the real life NASA Dawn spacecraft in orbit around the protoplanet Vesta and about to head for Ceres.

In the classic television series “Star Trek” the star ship Enterprise powered by blue light beams, speeds from planet to planet orbiting different worlds before zooming off to do more exploration.

These are current real life adventures of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral in 2007 now making discoveries announced this week about planetary and solar system evolution.

Dawn is flying into history as an ion powered spacecraft with its own blue light beams to travel 1.5 billion mi. to orbit one body, then depart and fly another billion miles to orbit a second body—just like the fictional star ship Enterprise.

The Dawn spacecraft with solar arrays spanning 65 ft. to power its 3 ion engines orbits over Vesta. Its mission is a real life “Star Trek”. Photo Credit: NASA

As it orbits two unexplored worlds, first the 330 mi. dia. Vesta and later the 600 mi. wide Ceres, both designated asteroids when discovered more than 100 yr. ago, Dawn is finding rather than being a traditional asteroid Vesta is highly differentiated. Dawn will depart for Ceres in July and arrive in Feb. 2015.

This makes Vesta a round baby planet—a 4.5 billion yr. old protoplanet whose structure, unlike asteroids, could not be shattered by the cataclysmic bombardment that occurred 4.1-3.8 billion years ago from leftover chunks of solar system formation.

“Dawn’s ambitious exploration of Vesta has been going beautifully,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “As we continue to gather a bounty of data, it is thrilling to reveal fascinating alien landscapes.”

Bright material extends out 12-19 mi. from the 6 mi. wide crater Canuleia on Vesta. Bright material appears to have been thrown out of the crater during the impact that created it. Photo Credit: NASA

New images and data highlight the diversity of Vesta’s surface and reveal unusual geologic features, some of which were never previously seen on asteroids.

These results were revealed this week at the 43rd Annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference near the Johnson Space Center, Houston.

Vesta is one of the brightest objects in the solar system. Dawn has found that
some areas on Vesta can be nearly twice
as bright as others. “Our analysis finds this bright material originates from Vesta and has undergone little change since the formation of Vesta over 4 billion years ago,” said Jian-Yang Li, a Dawn participating scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Bright areas appear everywhere on Vesta but are most predominant in and around craters. The areas vary from several hundred feet to around 10 miles across. Rocks crashing into the surface of Vesta seem to have exposed and spread bright material. This impact process may have mixed the bright material with darker surface material.

Dawn image shows the brightest areas seen on Vesta so far, a crater located inside the rim of the Rheasilvia basin at the south pole of Vesta. Photo Credit: NASA


“One of the surprises was the dark material is not randomly distributed,” said David Williams, a Dawn participating scientist at Arizona State University, Tempe. “This suggests underlying geology determines where it occurs.”

The dark materials seem to be related to impacts and their aftermath. Scientists theorize carbon-rich asteroids could have hit Vesta at speeds low enough to produce some of the smaller deposits without blasting away the surface.

Higher-speed asteroids also could have hit Vesta’s surface and melted the volcanic basaltic crust, darkening existing surface material. That melted conglomeration appears in the walls and floors of impact craters, on hills and ridges, and underneath brighter, more recent ejecta.
Vesta’s dark materials as shown below suggest the body may preserve ancient materials from the birth of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

The dark-rayed crater and dark spots may have come from a carbon-rich meteor that broke up and collided with Vesta. Or the dark-rayed crater could be excavated dark material from under Vesta's surface. Photo Credit: NASA


NASA astronaut Suni Williams. Photo Credit: NASA

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