NASA's Dawn mission observes asteroid Vesta at low orbit



Dawn, a NASA spacecraft launched in 2007 to study two large bodies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, arrived at its first target—the asteroid Vesta—in June 2011. Since then, it has orbited the asteroid at progressively lower altitudes, collecting detailed observations of Vesta's surface. Vesta is of particular interest because it is thought to be a remnant protoplanet—a small celestial body with a distinct core, mantle, and crust—formed early in the history of the solar system. Thus, by studying Vesta, “we will go back in time, right to the beginning of the solar system,” said Christopher Russell, a professor of geophysics and planetary physics at the University of California, Los Angeles and the principal investigator for the Dawn mission.