Asteroid Vesta Photographed by Dawn

Last month NASA’s Dawn spacecraft began beaming back incredible details of the surface of a 330-mile-wide space rock known as asteroid Vesta, and now scientists have the exciting task of poring through those images.

Since entering orbit, Dawn has captured more than 500 images of Vesta, the second-most massive resident of the asteroid belt – a zone between Mars and Jupiter littered with hundreds of thousands of space rocks orbiting the sun.

Analyzing the surface “enables us to determine what has happened to Vesta over the eons,” explained Christopher Russell of the University of California, Los Angeles, the mission’s chief scientist.

Dawn, a mission originally launched in 2007, will circle Vesta for a year, hovering as close as 110 miles from the surface, before moving on to asteroid Ceres – where it is scheduled to arrive in 2015.

Unlike dry and rocky Vesta, the dwarf planet of Ceres is icy and may have frost-covered poles. Due to the possible presence of frozen water, Dawn will not be able to venture as close to Ceres’ surface for fear of contaminating it.

Despite being denied planet-hood, asteroids such as Vesta and Ceres are of interest to researchers because they date back to the early solar system.

via Florida Today