NASA's Dawn spacecraft has obtained its first images of a giant asteroid by the name of Vesta.
The image is the first of what NASA expects to be many of Vesta, which is 530 kilometers (330 miles) in diameter and is the second most massive object in its asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The image was taken approximately 1.21 million kilometers (752,000 miles) from Vesta. Scientists expect Dawn to orbit around Vesta on July 16 when it is about 188 million kilometers (117 million miles) from Earth.
After plying the seas of space for more than a billion miles, the Dawn team finally spotted its target, said Carol Raymond, Dawn's deputy principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. This first image hints of detailed portraits to come from Dawn's upcoming visit.
Dawn's mission to Vesta is to collect science data in early August. As it gets closer, it will snap multi-angle images, allowing scientists to produce topographic maps. It plans to orbit the asteroid at 200 kilometers (120 miles) to perform other measurements and obtain closer shots of parts of the surface.
In order to orbit Vesta, Dawn must match the asteroid's path around the sun. This requires very precise knowledge of the body's location and speed. With the images showing Vesta's exaction location, scientists will be able to pin down its location and enable engineers to refine the spacecraft's trajectory.
Dawn was launched in September 2007 and its full odyssey will take it on a 5-billion-kilometer (3-billion-mile) journey. Its second destination, after Vesta, is Ceres, an even more massive body in the asteroid belt. Dawn will reach Ceres in 2015.
NASA says getting information on the two asteroids will unlock information regarding the solar system's early history. The two planet's surface composition, topography and texture will be measured against each other as well as gravitational pull.
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