On July 16, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, is expected to reach the orbit of an asteroid protoplanet that scientists hope may hold clues about the formation of the planets and the evolution of the solar system.
Vesta became forever relegated to asteroid status when its slow journey to becoming a planet was thwarted by the explosive force of Jupiter’s creation. Since then, the 329-mile-diameter body has remained trapped among other cosmic remnants of an asteroid belt that stretches from Mars to Jupiter.
Planetary scientists believe that, had its voyage been unimpeded, Vesta likely would have become a planet potentially similar to Earth or Mars, with an interior of a different composition than its surface.
Until now, the only images of Vesta came courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope, which provided unclear renderings of light and shadow that implied a diverse topography. But Dawn — equipped with framing cameras, a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer and a gamma ray and neutron detector — will give new insight into Vesta’s surface, geology and chemical composition.