Dawn scientists still have no idea what to make of Vesta

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

I watched the news conference this morning showing the first rotation video and other interesting images of the surface of Vesta, and there was an interesting theme to it: pretty much everything the scientists on the team talked about they had to qualify by saying that they would require a closer look and more time to confirm. In other words, there is a lot on Vesta that we haven't seen the likes of before, and that's a very good thing. It would have been disappointing, on the other hand, if they simply listed feature after feature saying "Yeah, this is an X, this is a Y, this is a Z, we've seen all this before and recognized it instantly".

The rotation video they released is the most striking part of the conference:



Right away, the first thing thing that catches the eye are the grooves around the equator. There was a lot of speculation at the conference but no conclusions, and perhaps one of the reasons for this, and for the origin of the big mountain on the south too, is that the north part of the protoplanet still hasn't come into view (it's winter there).

Over on unmannedspaceflight.com they have unsurprisingly improved on the work the team has done, releasing a much smoother version of the video than the one embedded there:

http://www.unmannedspaceflight.com/index.php?act=attach&type=post&id=25048

If that link doesn't work just look for it on this page.

Let's just take a second to remember what Vesta looked like to us before Dawn's arrival:



So yeah, just a bit better than before.


I also find myself wondering whether this continued focus on Vesta over the year Dawn will be there will contribute to the debate on what is a planet, and what isn't. One of the scientists there (the guy that answered most of the questions, can't remember his name) mentioned that they keep on referring to it as a planet because to a planetary scientist it simply doesn't feel like an asteroid - it has a differentiated interior, complex terrain, all sorts of features that one sees on planets and almost entirely lacking on a typical asteroid. The overall roundness of Vesta doesn't hurt here either. Whether it has cleared its orbit or not begins to feel like less of an immediate concern and more of an academic issue when one looks at something like Vesta up close.

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