Rendezvous with a Protoplanet: NASA’s DAWN and Vesta

Vesta - Asteroid and Protoplanet

Did you know that on September 27, 2007, NASA launched a mission to rendezvous with a protoplanet?  Well, here it is almost four years later and NASA reported that the DAWN probe successfully entered into orbit around Vesta on July 15, 2011.  We are just beginning to see the first images of Vesta, an object in the asteroid belt which is DAWN’s first stop in it’s ten year mission. 

This is the first time in human history, that we launched a probe that has entered an orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.   Think about this:  Vesta is about 117 million miles away from Earth.  DAWN had to travel a total of 1.7 billion miles over almost four to reach this tiny rendezvous point in space.  Amazing!

The DAWN Probe

So why did NASA send the probe to Vesta?  Vesta is an object that is 330 miles in diameter and is the second largest object in the asteroid belt.  Vesta is the remnant of an early protoplanet and this mission will help scientists understand the very beginnings of our Solar System.

Vesta is also thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth.

DAWN will spend a year orbiting and studying Vesta, then it will move on to it’s second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres.  The planned rendezvous should take place sometime in February of 2015.  In the meantime, look for lots of exciting images from Vesta and with any luck, we may find that Vesta even has a tiny moon! 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

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