Category Archives: Asteroids

Surprise discovery: rings around an asteroid!

Artist’s conception of the asteroid Chariklo with its ring system. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Artist’s conception of the asteroid Chariklo with its ring system. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

When it comes to planetary rings, what do you think of? Saturn is the first obvious thing that comes to mind, with its famous majestic ring system surrounding the gas giant planet. The other gas and ice giants – Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune – also have rings, although not as spectacular as Saturn’s. The smaller rocky planets in our solar system are all lacking rings unfortunately. But now, a new set of rings has been discovered for the first time – not around a planet, but an asteroid!

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Mystery gullies discovered on asteroid Vesta

Gullies in the crater Cornelia on Vesta. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA/MPS / DLR / IDA

The Dawn spacecraft left behind the giant asteroid Vesta last September, and is now en route to the even bigger dwarf planet Ceres, but scientists are still busy studying all of the data that was sent back to Earth while it was orbiting Vesta for over a year. And as often happens while exploring these new worlds, they have made a surprising discovery: long, sinuous gullies on the walls of geologically younger craters.

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Dawn spacecraft departs asteroid Vesta, next stop: Ceres

One of the last images of Vesta taken the Dawn spacecraft before it departed the asteroid to continue on to Ceres.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA/MPS / DLR / IDA / PSI

With all of the news lately about the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, it might be easy to forget about the other missions currently going on all over the solar system. That includes the asteroid belt, where the Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting and studying the giant asteroid Vesta since July of last year, sending back incredible photos and information about this unique world.

But now, Dawn has departed from Vesta to continue its mission elsewhere; on September 4, it escaped Vesta’s gravitational pull and is now headed for its next rendezvous – the dwarf planet Ceres. It is expected to arrive there in early 2015, the same year that the New Horizons spacecraft will finally reach Pluto.

See Examiner.com for the full article.

Hayabusa 2 mission approved by Japanese government

Artist's conception of Hayabusa 2 approaching the asteroid 1999 JU3. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

In 2010, the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa completed an exciting although nail-biting mission to the asteroid Itokawa, successfully returning samples to Earth after first reaching the asteroid in 2005; the mission almost failed, with the spacecraft plagued by technical problems. The canister containing the microscopic rock samples made a soft landing in Australia, the first time that samples from an asteroid had been brought back to Earth for study.

Now, the Japanese government has approved a follow-up mission, Hayabusa 2. This time the probe is scheduled to be launched in 2014 and rendezvous with the asteroid known as 1999 JU3 in mid-2018. Samples would again be taken and returned to Earth in late 2020…

See Universe Today for the full article.

Mountain on asteroid Vesta is three times taller than Mt. Everest

Vesta, while one of the largest asteroids, is still a lot smaller than Earth, and yet it has a mountain that is three times taller than Mt. Everest, reaching about 22 kilometres (13 miles) in height. It sits inside the huge south polar crater, so is similar to many other craters on various planets and moons which have central peaks. It is surprising nonetheless to see such a large mountain on a relatively small body like Vesta, especially since it is so much higher than the tallest mountain on Earth!

Perspective view of south polar mountain on Vesta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

The included image, taken by the orbiting Dawn spacecraft, shows a perspective view of the topography, but without the curvature of Vesta, as if you were looking at it standing on a flat Vesta instead of rounded. The resolution is about 300 metres (1,000 feet). The additional slideshow images show various views of the mountain. There is also a large steep-sloped scarp which bounds part of the south polar crater.

Overhead view of south polar mountain on Vesta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Oblique view of south polar mountain on Vesta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

There will be a news conference on Wednesday, October 12 at 10:00 a.m. PDT to discuss the latest results from Dawn, to be held at the Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America, in Minneapolis. It can be watched live on the Geological Society of America web site and on Ustream, which includes a moderated chat.

This article was first published on Examiner.com.

New Vesta images and video

The Dawn science team presented the best-yet images of the asteroid Vesta yesterday at a NASA press conference, including the first full-frame image (below). Dawn is just now beginning its regular science orbits around the huge asteroid, but has already provided new information and data, which will only increase over the next months.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

There is also a cool video showing a full rotation of Vesta as seen by Dawn.

Along with the huge crater with tall central mound seen previously, another feature of particular interest is the series of long grooves or ridges which extend partway around Vesta, clearly seen in the video.

The entire press conference can be viewed on YouTube:

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Vesta up close

The Dawn spacecraft has taken its first closeup photos of the asteroid Vesta since successfully entering orbit last Friday. This is the first time that a main-belt asteroid has been orbited by a spacecraft. There are some large ridges/cliffs as well as many craters, but the most prominent feature would seem to be the large mound inside the huge crater at the south pole (in centre of image below). Some comparisons have been made to Uranus’ moon Miranda in terms of the “chevron-shaped ridges” also inside that crater.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

As Dawn refines its orbit closer to Vesta over the next few weeks, there should be many more images showing greater detail; our first closeup look at this very old and intriquing world…

Dawn arrives at Vesta

After an almost four-year journey, the Dawn spacecraft has arrived at the asteroid Vesta, and will enter orbit tomorrow, July 15. The newest images, the first close-up ones ever taken of Vesta, have shown more and more detail as Dawn has made its approach. There wil be more news tomorrow of course, and the images from orbit should be amazing…

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Goodbye Spirit, but hello OSIRIS-REx

Two milestone but bittersweet announcements today from NASA… first, the formal end of mission for the Mars rover Spirit, after no communication for almost a year now, despite many repeated attempts. Spirit had gone into winter hibernation as in previous years, but this time, after being stuck in a deep sand trap for so long, with dwindling power, apparently wasn’t able to come out of it’s sleep this time. But for a mission initially designed to last three months, Spirit last about seven years! The other rover, Opportunity, however, continues to make its way across the Meridiani plains, and is now getting close to the huge Endeavour crater, which we’ve been eagerly waiting for, for a long time now…

On a positive note though, there was also announced today a new deep-space mission to launch in 2016 called Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) which will bring samples back to Earth from asteroid 1999 RQ36. As well as providing new information on the history of asteroids and the solar system, it will also help pave the way for a future manned mission to an asteroid, as directed by President Obama, before going to Mars.

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