Breaking Dawn: NASA Captures Video Approach Of Giant Unexplored Asteroid 'Vesta'

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Vesta is coming into focus. Scientists working with the Dawn mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena have created a new, Twilight Zone-looking video showing the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta as "the spacecraft approaches this unexplored world in the main asteroid belt," reports NASA.

The video loops 20 images obtained for navigation purposes on June 1. The images show a dark feature near Vesta's equator moving from left to right across the field of view as Vesta rotates. Images also show Vesta's jagged, irregular shape, hinting at the enormous crater known to exist at Vesta's south pole.

Images used in the "animation" were taking during a 30-minute period and show about 30 degrees of a rotation. They were shot with the framing camera aboard Dawn from a distance of approximately 300,000 miles, and "the pixel size in these images is approaching the resolution of the best Hubble Space Telescope images of Vesta."

Vesta's jagged shape, sculpted by eons of cosmic impacts in the main asteroid belt, is apparent. Variations in surface brightness and hints of surface features can be seen. Vesta's south pole is to the lower right at about the 5 o'clock position. Vesta is 330 miles (530 kilometers) in diameter and the second most massive object in the asteroid belt. It is also the only large asteroid with a basaltic surface formed due to volcanic processes early in the solar system's history. Vesta is considered a protoplanet because it is a large body that almost formed into a planet.

The Dawn spacecraft is expected to ease its speed down to about 75 mph before reaching orbit around Vesta on July 16. Images will be released on a weekly basis and more frequently "once the spacecraft begins collecting science at Vesta."

"Like strangers in a strange land, we're looking for familiar landmarks," said Jian-Yang Li, a Dawn participating scientist from the University of Maryland, College Park. "The shadowy spot is one of those — it appears to match a feature, known as 'Feature B,' from images of Vesta taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope."

Andreas Nathues, the framing camera lead investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany said, "Dawn's framing camera is working exactly as anticipated." The video will air Monday on NASA Television's Video File. Stream it here and follow the mission on Twitter.

This movie shows surface details beginning to resolve as NASA's Dawn spacecraft closes in on the giant asteroid Vesta. The framing camera aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained the images used for this animation on June 1, 2011, from a distance of about 300,000 miles.