Hubble Images of Asteroids Help Astronomers Prepare for Spacecraft Visit

Jun 20, 2007
Hubble Images of Asteroids Help Astronomers Prepare for Spacecraft Visit
These Hubble Space Telescope images of Vesta and Ceres show two of the most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt, a region between Mars and Jupiter. The images are helping astronomers plan for the Dawn spacecraft's tour of these hefty asteroids. Credits for Vesta: NASA; ESA; L. McFadden and J.Y. Li (University of Maryland, College Park); M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore); P. Thomas (Cornell University); J. Parker and E.F. Young (Southwest Research Institute); and C.T. Russell and B. Schmidt (University of California, Los Angeles) Credits for Ceres: NASA; ESA; J. Parker (Southwest Research Institute); P. Thomas (Cornell University); L. McFadden (University of Maryland, College Park); and M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (Space Telescope Science Institute)

Telescope images of Vesta and Ceres show two of the most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt, a region between Mars and Jupiter. The images are helping astronomers plan for the Dawn spacecraft's tour of these hefty asteroids.

On July 7, NASA is scheduled to launch the spacecraft on a four-year journey to the asteroid belt. Once there, Dawn will do some asteroid-hopping, going into orbit around Vesta in 2011 and Ceres in 2015. Dawn will be the first spacecraft to orbit two targets. At least 100,000 asteroids inhabit the asteroid belt, a reservoir of leftover material from the formation of our solar-system planets 4.6 billion years ago.

Dawn also will be the first satellite to tour a dwarf planet. The International Astronomical Union named Ceres one of three dwarf planets in 2006. Ceres is round like planets in our solar system, but it does not clear debris out of its orbit as our planets do.

To prepare for the Dawn spacecraft's visit to Vesta, astronomers used Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 to snap new images of the asteroid. The image at right was taken on May 14 and 16, 2007. Using Hubble, astronomers mapped Vesta's southern hemisphere, a region dominated by a giant impact crater formed by a collision billions of years ago. The crater is 285 miles (456 kilometers) across, which is nearly equal to Vesta's 330-mile (530-kilometer) diameter. If Earth had a crater of proportional size, it would fill the Pacific Ocean basin. The impact broke off chunks of rock, producing more than 50 smaller asteroids that astronomers have nicknamed "vestoids." The collision also may have blasted through Vesta's crust. Vesta is about the size of Arizona.

Previous Hubble images of Vesta's southern hemisphere were taken in 1994 and 1996 with the wide-field camera. In this new set of images, Hubble's sharp "eye" can see features as small as about 37 miles (60 kilometers) across. The image shows the difference in brightness and color on the asteroid's surface. These characteristics hint at the large-scale features that the Dawn spacecraft will see when it arrives at Vesta.

Hubble's view reveals extensive global features stretching longitudinally from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere. The image also shows widespread differences in brightness in the east and west, which probably reflects compositional changes. Both of these characteristics could reveal volcanic activity throughout Vesta. The size of these different regions varies. Some are hundreds of miles across.

The brightness differences could be similar to the effect seen on the Moon, where smooth, dark regions are more iron-rich than the brighter highlands that contain minerals richer in calcium and aluminum. When Vesta was forming 4.5 billion years ago, it was heated to the melting temperatures of rock. This heating allowed heavier material to sink to Vesta's center and lighter minerals to rise to the surface.

Astronomers combined images of Vesta in two colors to study the variations in iron-bearing minerals. From these minerals, they hope to learn more about Vesta's surface structure and composition. Astronomers expect that Dawn will provide rich details about the asteroid's surface and interior structure.

The Hubble image of Ceres on the left reveals bright and dark regions on the asteroid's surface that could be topographic features, such as craters, and/or areas containing different surface material. Large impacts may have caused some of these features and potentially added new material to the landscape. The Texas-sized asteroid holds about 30 to 40 percent of the mass in the asteroid belt.

Ceres' round shape suggests that its interior is layered like those of terrestrial planets such as Earth. The asteroid may have a rocky inner core, an icy mantle, and a thin, dusty outer crust. The asteroid may even have water locked beneath its surface. It is approximately 590 miles (950 kilometers) across and was the first asteroid discovered in 1801.

The observations were made in visible and ultraviolet light between December 2003 and January 2004 with the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The color variations in the image show either a difference in texture or composition on Ceres' surface. Astronomers need the close-up views of the Dawn spacecraft to determine the characteristics of these regional differences.

Source: Space Telescope Science Institute

Explore further: Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Dawn snaps its best-yet image of dwarf planet ceres

Dec 05, 2014

The Dawn spacecraft has delivered a glimpse of Ceres, the largest body in the main asteroid belt, in a new image taken 740,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from the dwarf planet. This is Dawn's best image ...

Vesta is not an intact protoplanet

Dec 16, 2014

Nearly forty years ago, Guy Consolmagno was young graduate student at the University of Arizona's Department of Planetary Sciences; his work there with the late Michael Drake first proposed that asteroid ...

How a giant impact formed asteroid Vesta's 'belt'

Nov 03, 2014

When NASA's Dawn spacecraft visited the asteroid Vesta in 2011, it showed that deep grooves that circle the asteroid's equator like a cosmic belt were probably caused by a massive impact on Vesta's south ...

Dawn spacecraft reveals secrets of giant asteroid Vesta

Apr 26, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Findings from NASA's Dawn spacecraft reveal new details about the giant asteroid Vesta, including its varied surface composition, sharp temperature changes and clues to its internal structure. ...

Recommended for you

Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

Dec 24, 2014

Bright stars top Christmas trees in Christian homes around much of the world. The faithful sing about the Star of Wonder that guided the wise men to a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was ...

Hubbles spies the beautiful galaxy IC 335

Dec 24, 2014

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the galaxy IC 335 in front of a backdrop of distant galaxies. IC 335 is part of a galaxy group containing three other galaxies, and located in the Fornax ...

Image: Multicoloured view of supernova remnant

Dec 22, 2014

Most celestial events unfold over thousands of years or more, making it impossible to follow their evolution on human timescales. Supernovas are notable exceptions, the powerful stellar explosions that make ...

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources in starburst galaxies

Dec 22, 2014

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) are point sources in the sky that are so bright in X-rays that each emits more radiation than a million suns emit at all wavelengths. ULXs are rare. Most galaxies (including ...

When a bright light fades

Dec 22, 2014

Astronomer Charles Telesco is primarily interested in the creation of planets and stars. So, when the University of Florida's giant telescope was pointed at a star undergoing a magnificent and explosive death, ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.