Archive for January, 2013

The Giant Asteroid: A Retrospective

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Mosaic of Dawn's images of asteroid Vesta
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft takes off for its next destination, this mosaic synthesizes some of the best views the spacecraft had of the giant asteroid Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA
› full image and caption

Dear Dawnt Look Backs,

Its long and daring interplanetary journey continuing smoothly, Dawn is making good progress in gradually reshaping its orbit around the sun. Its uniquely efficient ion propulsion system is gently bringing it closer to its next destination, dwarf planet Ceres, and ever farther from its previous one, Vesta. Although the robotic explorer’s sights are set firmly ahead, let’s take one last look back at the fascinating alien world it unveiled during its 14 months in orbit there.

Vesta, the second most massive resident of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, was discovered in 1807. For more than two centuries thereafter, the mysterious object appeared as little more than a fuzzy patch of light among the stars. The only one of the millions of main belt asteroids to be bright enough to be visible to the naked eye, Vesta beckoned, but its invitation was not answered until Dawn arrived in July 2011, nearly four years after it left distant Earth. The cosmic ambassador is the only spacecraft ever to have orbited an object in the main asteroid belt, and its ambitious mission would have been impossible without ion propulsion.

Dawn found a complex and exotic place, and it returned a fabulously rich collection of pictures and other measurements that will continue to be analyzed for many, many years. For now, we will simply touch on a very few of the many insights that already have been illuminated by the light of Dawn.

Scientists recognize Vesta as being more like a mini-planet than like the chips of rock most people think of as asteroids. The behemoth is 565 kilometers (351 miles) wide at the equator and has a surface area more than twice that of California (although it is populated by far fewer eccentrics, billionaires, and other colorful characters found in that state). Dawn’s measurements of the gravity field provide good evidence that Vesta separated into layers, much like Earth did as the planet was forming. Vesta’s dense core, composed principally of iron and nickel, may be 200 to 250 kilometers (125 to 150 miles) across. Surrounding that is the mantle, which in turn is covered by the veneer of the crust, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) thick. The once-molten core is now solid (in contrast to Earth’s, which remains hot enough to be liquid), but the differentiation into layers gives Vesta a key distinction from most asteroids. Because it was likely still in the process of accumulating material to become a full-sized planet when Jupiter’s immense gravity terminated its growth, scientists often refer to Vesta as a protoplanet.

Among the most prominent features of the alien landscape is a huge gouge out of the southern hemisphere so large that its presence was inferred from observations with the Hubble Space Telescope. Dawn found this gigantic crater to be even deeper and wider than expected, penetrating about 19 kilometers (12 miles) and spanning more than 500 kilometers (310 miles), or nearly 90 percent of the protoplanet’s equatorial diameter.

The yawning hole is now known as Rheasilvia, after the Vestal Virgin who not only was the mythical mother of Romulus and Remus, but also surely would have been astounded by the spectacular sights on Vesta as well as the spacecraft’s capability to point any user-defined body vector in a time-varying inertial direction defined by Chebyshev polynomials. As Dawn has brought Vesta into focus, cartographers have needed labels for the myriad features it has discovered. The International Astronomical Union names Vestan craters for Vestal Virgins and other famous Roman women; mountains, canyons, and other structures are named for towns and festivals associated with the Vestal Virgins.

Vesta dates to the dawn of the solar system, more than 4.5 billion years ago, and its age shows. Myriad craters tell the story of a timeworn surface that has been subjected to the rough and tumble conditions of life in the asteroid belt ever since. A virtual rain of space rocks has fallen upon it. While Rheasilvia records the most powerful punch, from an object as much as 50 kilometers (30 miles) across, there are at least seven craters, some quite ancient indeed, more than 150 kilometers (nearly 100 miles) in diameter. As the eons pass, craters degrade and become more difficult to discern, their crisp shapes eroded by subsequent impacts large and small.

The long history of cratering is particularly evident in the startling difference between the northern and southern hemispheres. The north is very densely cratered, but the south is not. Why? The titanic blow that carved out Rheasilvia is estimated to have occurred over one billion years ago. It excavated a tremendous volume of material. Much of it fell back to the surface, wiping it clean, so the cratering record had to start all over again. Recall that the crater itself is 500 kilometers (310 miles) in diameter, and scientists estimate that 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside the rim, the debris may have piled about 5 kilometers (3 miles) high. Even at greater distances, preexisting features would have been partially or completely erased by the thick accumulation. The effect did not reach to the northern hemisphere, however, so it retained the craters than had formed before this enormous impact.

Some of the rocks were ejected with so much energy that they broke free of Vesta’s gravitational grip, going into orbit around the sun. They then went their own way as they were yanked around by the gravitational forces of Jupiter and other bodies, and many of them eventually made it to the part of the solar system where your correspondent and some of his readers spend most of their time: Earth. When our planet’s gravity takes hold of one of these Vesta escapees, it pulls the rock into its atmosphere. Some lucky witness might even observe it as a meteor. Its blazing flight to the ground is not the end of its glory, however, for these rocks are prized by planetary geologists and other enthusiasts who want a souvenir from that impact.

Scientists now know that about 6 percent of the meteorites seen to fall to Earth originated on Vesta. Six percent! One of every 16 meteorites! This is an astonishingly large fraction. Apart from Mars and the moon, Vesta is the only known source of specific meteorites. Although rocks from Vesta had to travel much farther, they far outnumber meteorites from these other two more familiar celestial bodies.

Combining laboratory studies of the numerous samples of Vesta with Dawn’s measurements at the source provides an extraordinary opportunity to gain insights into the nature of that remote world. Meteorites from Vesta are so common that they are often displayed in museums (occasionally even without the curators’ awareness of their special history) and can be obtained from many vendors. Anyone who has seen or held one surely must be moved by contemplating its origin, so distant in space and time, from well beyond Mars and long before animal or plant life arose on Earth.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal for more Vesta history

The Giant Asteroid, Near and Far

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

By Marc Rayman
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft makes its journey to its second target, the dwarf planet Ceres, Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, shares a monthly update on the mission’s progress.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft departing asteroid Vesta
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft departing the giant asteroid Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dawn concluded 2012 almost 13,000 times farther from Vesta than it began the year. At that time, it was in its lowest orbit, circling the alien world at an average altitude of only 210 kilometers (130 miles), scrutinizing the mysterious protoplanet to tease out its secrets about the dawn of the solar system.

To conduct its richly detailed exploration, Dawn spent nearly 14 months in orbit around Vesta, bound by the behemoth’s gravitational grip. In September they bid farewell, as the adventurer gently escaped from the long embrace and slipped back into orbit around the sun. The spaceship is on its own again in the main asteroid belt, its sights set on a 2015 rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres. Its extensive ion thrusting is gradually enlarging its orbit and taking it ever farther from its erstwhile companion as their solar system paths diverge.

Meanwhile, on faraway Earth (and all the other locations throughout the cosmos where Dawnophiles reside), the trove of pictures and other precious measurements continue to be examined, analyzed, and admired by scientists and everyone else who yearns to glimpse distant celestial sights. And Earth itself, just as Vesta, Ceres, Dawn, and so many other members of the solar system family, continues to follow its own orbit around the sun.

Thanks to a coincidence of their independent trajectories, Earth and Dawn recently reached their smallest separation in well over a year, just as the tips of the hour hand and minute hand on a clock are relatively near every 65 minutes, 27 seconds. On Dec. 9, they were only 236 million kilometers (147 million miles) apart. Only? In human terms, this is not particularly close. Take a moment to let the immensity of their separation register. The International Space Station, for example, firmly in orbit around Earth, was 411 kilometers (255 miles) high that day, so our remote robotic explorer was 575 thousand times farther. If Earth were a soccer ball, the occupants of the orbiting outpost would have been a mere seven millimeters (less than a third of an inch) away. Our deep-space traveler would have been more than four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the ball. So although the planet and its extraterrestrial emissary were closer than usual, they were not in close proximity. Dawn remains extraordinarily far from all of its human friends and colleagues and the world they inhabit.

As the craft reshapes its solar orbit to match Ceres’s, it will wind up farther from the sun than it was while at Vesta. (As a reminder, see the table here that illustrates Dawn’s progress to each destination on its long interplanetary voyage.) We saw recently, however, that the route is complex, and the spacecraft is temporarily approaching the sun. Before the ship has had time to swing back out to a greater heliocentric range, Earth will have looped around again, and the two will briefly be even a little bit closer early in 2014. After that, however, they will never be so near each other again, as Dawn will climb higher and higher up the solar system hill, its quest for new and exciting knowledge of distant worlds taking it farther from the sun and hence from Earth.

› Continue reading Marc Rayman’s Dawn Journal to learn how to approximate Dawn’s position in the sky on Jan. 21 and 22

My Big Fat Planet: In Essence: Science Boiled Down

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

By Amber Jenkins

Map of the Arctic Sea and environs

An interesting recent paper from Dr. Son Nghiem at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and colleagues finds that the bottom of the Arctic Ocean controls the pattern of sea ice thousands of feet above on the water’s surface. The seafloor topography exerts its control not only locally, in the Bering, Chukchi, Beaufort, Barents and Greenland Seas, but also spanning hundreds to thousands of miles across the Arctic Ocean.

How? The seafloor influences the distribution of cold and warm waters in the Arctic Ocean where sea ice can preferentially grow or melt. Geological features on the ocean bottom also guide how the sea ice moves, along with influence from surface winds.

Interestingly, the study also links the bottom of the Arctic Ocean with cloud patterns up in the sky. The ocean bottom affects sea ice cover, which affects the amount of vapor coming from the surface of the ocean out into the air, which in turn influences cloud cover.

The researchers, who also come from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the Applied Physics Laboratory and the National/Naval Ice Center in the U.S., use sea ice maps taken from space with NASA’s QuickSCAT satellite, as well as measurements from drifting buoys in the Arctic Ocean. They compare the sea ice and seafloor topography patterns to identify the connection between the two.

Bottom line:

Since the seafloor does not change significantly over many years, sea ice patterns can form repeatedly and persist around certain underwater geological features. So computer models need to incorporate these features in order to improve their forecasts of how ice cover will change over the short- and long-term. This ‘memory’ of the underwater topography could help refine our predictions of what will happen to ice in the Arctic as the climate changes.


Seafloor Control on Sea Ice,” S. V. Nghiem, P. Clemente-Colon, I.G. Rigor, D.K. Hall & G. Neumann, Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography, Volumes 77-80, pp 52-61 (2012).

This post was written for “My Big Fat Planet,” a blog hosted by Amber Jenkins on NASA’s Global Climate Change site.

My Big Fat Planet: Pick of the Pics

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

By Amber Jenkins

View of Earth at Night    Earth at night, as seen by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite, a joint effort by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory and NOAA National Geophysical Data Center.

This is a new image of our planet at night, as taken by a new NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite orbiting above us. Scientists recently unveiled this global composite image (and the one below), constructed using cloud-free nighttime images. They show the glow of natural and man-made phenomena across the planet in greater detail than ever seen before. City lights can tell us about how humans have spread across the globe.

View of Earth at Night

Many satellites are equipped to look at Earth during the day, when they can observe our planet fully illuminated by the sun. But with a new sensor onboard the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite launched last year, scientists now can observe Earth’s atmosphere and surface during nighttime hours.

For more Earth at night images, see this article.

This post was written for “My Big Fat Planet,” a blog hosted by Amber Jenkins on NASA’s Global Climate Change site.