Space mountain produces terrestrial meteorites

Space mountain produces terrestrial meteorites
A side view of Vesta's great south polar mountain.

When NASA's Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around giant asteroid Vesta in July, scientists fully expected the probe to reveal some surprising sights. But no one expected a 13-mile high mountain, two and a half times higher than Mount Everest, to be one of them.

The existence of this towering peak could solve a : How did so many pieces of Vesta end up right here on our own planet?

For many years, researchers have been collecting Vesta meteorites from "fall sites" around the world. The rocks' chemical fingerprints leave little doubt that they came from the giant asteroid. Earth has been peppered by so many fragments of Vesta, that people have actually witnessed fireballs caused by the tearing through our atmosphere. Recent examples include falls near the African village of Bilanga Yanga in October 1999 and outside Millbillillie, Australia, in October 1960.

"Those meteorites just might be pieces of the basin excavated when Vesta's giant mountain formed," says Dawn PI Chris Russell of UCLA.

Russell believes the mountain was created by a 'big bad impact' with a smaller body; material displaced in the smashup rebounded and expanded upward to form a towering peak. The same tremendous collision that created the mountain might have hurled splinters of Vesta toward Earth.

"Some of the meteorites in our museums and labs," he says, "could be fragments of Vesta formed in the impact -- pieces of the same stuff the mountain itself is made of."

To confirm the theory, Dawn's science team will try to prove that Vesta's meteorites came from the mountain's vicinity. It's a "match game" involving both age and chemistry.

"Vesta formed at the dawn of the solar system," says Russell. "Billions of years of collisions with other have given it a densely cratered surface."

Space mountain produces terrestrial meteorites
Cross-section of the south polar mountain on Vesta with the cross sections of Olympus Mons on Mars, the largest mountain in the solar system, and the Big lsland of Hawaii as measured from the floor of the Pacific, the largest mountain on Earth. These latter two mountains are both shield volcanoes.Credit: Russell et. al. (2011), EPSC

The surface around the mountain, however, is tellingly smooth. Russell believes the impact wiped out the entire history of cratering in the vicinity. By counting craters that have accumulated since then, researchers can estimate the age of the landscape.

"In this way we can figure out the approximate age of the mountain's surface. Using radioactive dating, we can also tell when the meteorites were 'liberated' from Vesta. A match between those dates would be compelling evidence of a meteorite-mountain connection."

For more proof, the scientists will compare the meteorites' chemical makeup to that of the mountain area.

"Vesta is intrinsically but subtly colorful. Dawn's sensors can detect slight color variations in Vesta's minerals, so we can map regions of chemicals and minerals that have emerged on the surface. Then we'll compare these colors to those of the meteorites."

Could an impact on Vesta really fill so many museum display cases on Earth? Stay tuned for answers.

Explore further

New view of Vesta mountain from Dawn mission

Source: Science@NASA
Citation: Space mountain produces terrestrial meteorites (2012, January 2) retrieved 24 April 2019 from
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Jan 02, 2012
Interesting and amazing that science can deduce so many facts about places millions and billions of miles and indeed, light years away. Sure, we have more to yet, learn, than we already have, but that what drives so many curious minds to careers in science. Smart people with above average IQs make good scientists. Bad science is out there, but it is usually performed by scientists for hire by wealthy Oil or business interests, trying to deceive the public and muddy the waters of understanding and real truth. Shameful and dangerous, these sham artists do a criminal thing. Fool us into thinking all is well with Earth's climate, profit is good, and money trumps reason. The richer you are the more honest? Usually the opposite is true. Big money is only concerned with making more money, not doing the right thing for our environment.
Astronomy is a great hobby and Vesta can be seen by amateur sky watchers with the right tools. Telescopes reveal much, even in this light polluted age.

Jan 02, 2012
Science has had this problem since science was invented. It all irons out in the end. Private industry is made up of the same people who make up society and government, ie. you and I and Oliver. And, no Paul, most research paid for my private industry isn't tainted. Any more than any other research where egos and personalities may become more important that the truth. Bureaucrats, businessmen and scientists are only human after all, and are subject to the same frailties as the rest of us.

I'm going to guess that the large impact on Vesta occurred during the LHB, 4.1-3.8GYa.

Jan 03, 2012
Bad science for cash can also skew data and continue the man made global warming theory.

You can actually link an article about an asteroid to global warming? Hard to believe.

Jan 03, 2012
This little gem in the first paragraph.
The existence of this towering peak could solve a longstanding mystery: How did so many pieces of Vesta end up right here on our own planet?

followed by this almost at the finish
"Some of the meteorites in our museums and labs," he says, "could be fragments of Vesta formed in the impact -- pieces of the same stuff the mountain itself is made of."

Tells me that this entire piece is nothing but fiction.

Jan 03, 2012
Why are they comparing a lump on an asteroid to a mountain on Earth. They are completely different formations. The asteroid is not a planet therefore can be ANY shape, lumps are just lumps. Nothing special about it whatsoever.

Jan 03, 2012
The asteroid is not a planet therefore can be ANY shape, lumps are just lumps. Nothing special about it whatsoever

Actually, Vesta is special. It is gravitationally bound, meaning that it is a composite of many small parts held together by gravity, just like the Earth, Moon and Mars. Vesta is a layered body that formed just like a planet. I think you mis-understand how large it is. A person could not launch himself off of Vesta under his own power, like you could on Phobos, for example. You might be able to jump really high on Vesta, but you would still fall back down. Vesta actually has geological features from when it was active; rifts, volcanos, mountains, etc.

Escape velocity on Vesta is about 783 miles/hour, fyi.

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