NASA satellite captures first image of target asteroid

NASA’s Dawn satellite on mission to explore asteroid Vesta, Dwarf planet Ceres

nasa image of vesta
NASA today said that its Dawn spacecraft snapped the first image of the giant asteroid Vesta it hopes to rendezvous with in July.

The 530 kilometers (330 miles) diameter asteroid appears as a small, bright pearl against a background of stars. Vesta is also known as a protoplanet, because it is a large body that almost formed into a planet and it is the second most massive object in the asteroid belt, NASA says. For a larger image click here.

Dawn is on a mission to achieve orbit around Vesta on July 16, when the asteroid is about 188 million kilometers (117 million miles) from Earth.

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According to the space agency to slide into the asteroid's orbit, Dawn must match the asteroid's path around the sun, which requires very precise knowledge of the asteroid's location and speed. By analyzing where Vesta appears relative to stars in framing camera images, NASA navigators will pin down its location and enable engineers to refine the spacecraft's trajectory.

NASA said Dawn will start collecting science data in early August at an altitude of about 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) above the asteroid's surface. As the spacecraft gets closer, it will snap multi-angle images, allowing scientists to produce topographic maps. Dawn will later orbit at approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) to perform other measurements and obtain closer shots of parts of the surface. Dawn will remain in orbit around Vesta for one year then it will cruise off to examine dwarf planet Ceres in 2015.

nasa's dawn
Vesta and Ceres are of interest to scientists because they are believed to have accreted early in the history of the solar system, NASA says. Vesta is a dry, with a surface that shows signs of resurfacing. It resembles the rocky bodies of the inner solar system, including Earth. Ceres has a primitive surface containing water-bearing minerals, and may possess a weak atmosphere. It appears to have many similarities to the large icy moons of the outer solar system, according to NASA.

Dawn carries a visible camera, a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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