HOUSTON: A robotic NASA science probe was scheduled to slip into orbit around the potato-shaped asteroid Vesta on Saturday to begin a yearlong study of the second largest object in the asteroid belt.
NASA expects to hear back from its Dawn spacecraft Sunday to learn if the maneuver, which took place about 117 million miles from Earth, was successful.
”We just have to be patient,” said chief engineer Marc Rayman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Dawn was dispatched to Vesta in 2007, the first stop in a 466 million dollars quest to learn more about how the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.
Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, the second object in Dawn’s voyage, are two of the largest surviving protoplanets — rocky bodies that nearly had enough mass to become full-fledged planets — in solar system. Both reside in the main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter.
”These are two of the last unexplored worlds in our inner solar system,” said Dawn project manager Robert Mase.
With its iron core and possible lava flows, scientists believe Vesta is more similar to Earth or the moon than most of its other asteroid neighbors.
Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, is relatively close to Vesta, but it formed under vastly different circumstances. The so-called dwarf planet more closely resembles the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Ceres has water-bearing minerals and possibly a weak atmosphere.
The goal of the Dawn mission is to collect enough information about Vesta and Ceres to understand conditions and processes of the early solar system. The spacecraft has three scientific instruments to study surface features and determine chemical composition. (PTI)