NASA's Dawn mission spacecraft will descend to a 1,700-mile-high orbit on Aug. 11 where scientist will begin an examination of the Vesta asteroid, the second-largest in the main asteroid belt.
Their observation will provide data that could help scientists understand more about the Vesta, which is considered the earliest chapter of our solar system, and could pave the way for future human space missions, according to NASA.
NASA's Dawn spacecraft slipped into the Vesta's orbit last month to conduct a year-long study of the 330-mile-wide asteroid.
Dawn's team has already beamed photographs of the asteroid that scientists can begin poring over. NASA has taken images over the Vesta's northern Hemisphere after the spacecraft finished its first passage over the dark side of the giant asteroid.
The Dawn team released the first full-frame image of Vesta taken on July 24. That image was taken at a distance of 3,200. Images from Dawn's framing camera are taken for navigation purposes and as preparation for scientific observations, according to NASA.
These images are also revealing the first surface details of the giant asteroid, which turns on its axis once every five hours and 20 minutes, according to NASA.
The space agency also released a video of the asteroid in full rotation.
"Now that we are in orbit around one of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system, we can see that it's a unique and fascinating place," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.
Vesta is the brightest object in the asteroid belt as seen from Earth. It is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth, NASA said.
The DAWN team traveled nearly four years and 1.7 billion before being captured by Vesta's gravity. They are currently are 1,800 miles between the asteroid and the spacecraft.
NASA said the giant asteroid and its new neighbor are approximately 114 million away from Earth.
"We have been calling Vesta the smallest terrestrial planet," said Chris Russell, Dawn's principal investigator at UCLA, in a statement. "The latest imagery provides much justification for our expectations. They show that a variety of processes were once at work on the surface of Vesta and provide extensive evidence for Vesta's planetary aspirations."
In mid-July, the spacecraft relayed information to NASA confirming that it entered Vesta's orbit. However, the precise time this occurred is currently unknown.
NASA said engineers are still working to determine the exact time that Dawn entered Vesta's orbit, and that the team reported an approximate orbit insertion time of 12:47 a.m. EDT on July 16.
Dawn launched in September 2007. After its stint in Vesta, the Dawn team will leave on July 2012 and embark on a journey to a dwarf planet named Ceres, where it will arrive in 2015, according to NASA.