NASA’s Dawn spacecraft approaches protoplanet Vesta
NASA’s Dawn mission to the doughnut-shaped asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which launched in September 2007, is now approaching Vesta, a protoplanet that is currently some 143 million miles from Earth. Many surprises are likely awaiting the spacecraft.
“We often refer to Vesta as the smallest terrestrial planet,” said Christopher T. Russell, a UCLA professor of geophysics and space physics in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and the mission’s principal investigator. “It has planetary features and basically the same structure as Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. But because it is so small, it does not have enough gravity to retain an atmosphere, or at least not to retain an atmosphere for very long.
“There are many mysteries about Vesta,” Russell said. “One of them is why Vesta is so bright. The Earth reflects a lot of sunlight — about 40 percent — because it has clouds and snow on the surface, while the moon reflects only about 10 percent of the light from the sun back. Vesta is more like the Earth. Why? What on its surface is causing all that sunlight to be reflected? We’ll find out.”
Dawn will map Vesta’s surface, which Russell says may be similar to the moon’s. He says he expects that the body’s interior is layered, with a crust, a mantle and an iron core. He is eager to learn about this interior and how large the iron core is.
Named for the ancient Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta has been bombarded by meteorites for 4.5 billion years.