The spacecraft Dawn of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has returned the first close-up image of the giant asteroid Vesta after entering its orbit for the first time last week, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) announced on Monday.
NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on July 17, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 9,500 miles (15,000 kilometers) away from the protoplanet Vesta. Each pixel in the image corresponds to roughly 0.88 miles (1.4 kilometers). (Photo Source: NASA.gov)
The image taken for navigation purposes shows Vesta in greater detail than ever before, said JPL in Pasadena, California.
On July 15, Dawn became the first probe to enter orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
When Vesta captured Dawn into its orbit, there were approximately 9,900 miles (about 16,000 kilometers) between the spacecraft and the asteroid.
Vesta is 330 miles (about 530 kilometers) in diameter and the second most massive object in the asteroid belt.
Ground- and space-based telescopes have obtained images of Vesta for about two centuries, but they have not been able to see much detail on its surface.
"We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system," said Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell from the University of California, Los Angeles, which is responsible for Dawn's mission science. " This region of space has been ignored for far too long. So far, the images received to date reveal a complex surface that seems to have preserved some of the earliest events in Vesta's history, as well as logging the onslaught that Vesta has suffered in the intervening eons."
Vesta is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth. Vesta and its new NASA neighbor, Dawn, are currently approximately 117 million miles (about 188 million kilometers) away from Earth. The Dawn team will begin gathering science data in August.
Observations will provide unprecedented data to help scientists understand the earliest chapter of the solar system and pave the way for future human space missions, according to JPL.
"Dawn slipped gently into orbit with the same grace it has displayed during its years of ion thrusting through interplanetary space," said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission manager at NASA's JPL. "It is fantastically exciting that we will begin providing humankind its first detailed views of one of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system."
Although orbit capture is complete, the approach phase will continue for about three weeks. During approach, the Dawn team will continue a search for possible moons around the asteroid; obtain more images for navigation; observe Vesta's physical properties; and obtain calibration data.
In addition, navigators will measure the strength of Vesta's gravitational tug on the spacecraft to compute the asteroid's mass with much greater accuracy than has been previously available, according to JPL.
Dawn will spend one year orbiting Vesta, then travel to a second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, arriving in February 2015. The mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alaska.