Tuesday, May 03, 2011

NASA Spacecraft Closing in On Huge Asteroid Vesta

NASA spacecraft has reached a new phase of its mission to Vesta, the second-largest asteroid in the solar system, and is on track to arrive at the huge space rock in July. The probe, NASA's Dawn spacecraft, is now using cameras for the first time to aid its approach to Vesta, a massive asteroid that many astronomers classify as a protoplanet. If all goes well, the ion-propelled probe should enter orbit around Vesta on July 16 to begin a year-long study of the mysterious space rock.

"We feel a little like Columbus approaching the shores of the New World," said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator at UCLA, in a statement. "The Dawn team can't wait to start mapping this terra incognita." At 329 miles wide, Vesta is the second-biggest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It appears to have layers – a core, mantle and crust – just as planets such as Earth, Venus and Mars do.

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