Here's a photo of Vesta that was released by the Dawn team on Friday. I didn't post it right away because the version of the image in the official release has some bizarre processing artifacts that make it look as though the image had been made by cutting construction paper.
I am pretty sure that the Dawn team put nearly every image they've taken of Vesta so far in the animation they released yesterday, which is awesome. It hasn't taken long for the amateur image processing community to pick that animation apart into its component frames and process the heck out of the individual images to produce some very fine looking images and animations.
What do you know! I spend my last pre-vacation post whining about the lack of image releases from Dawn as it approaches Vesta and what do I find in my Inbox on the morning of my return to work but: an image release from Dawn!
Dawn remains healthy and on course as it continues to approach Vesta. Thrusting with its ion propulsion system, as it has for most of its interplanetary journey so far, the spacecraft is gradually matching its solar orbit to that of the protoplanet just ahead.
Since the Galileo mission discovered tiny Dactyl circling Ida in 1993, quite a lot of asteroid systems have been found to be binary; there are even a few triples. So it's quite reasonable to guess that two of the biggest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, might also have satellites.
Today the Dawn imaging team released a photo from the main camera, the Framing Camera, symbolizing that they're preparing to start Dawn approach science; the other two science instruments, a spectrometer and a neutron detector, are also being turned on and checked out.
Deep in the asteroid belt, Dawn continues thrusting with its ion propulsion system. The spacecraft is making excellent progress in reshaping its orbit around the sun to match that of its destination, the unexplored world Vesta, with arrival now less than five months away.
Here's a neat paper just published in Geophysical Research Letters: "Mega-ejecta on asteroid Vesta." In it, Martin Jutzi and Erik Asphaug consider Vesta's shape -- which appears to be dominated by a very large impact crater centered at its south pole -- and ask how much of the great big asteroid Vesta's global appearance is likely to be dominated by the effects of that one large impact.
Dawn continues its flight through the asteroid belt, steadily heading toward its July rendezvous with Vesta, where it will take up residence for a year. On January 10, Dawn performed some of the activities that it will execute in its low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) at Vesta.
Welcome 2011! I can't wait for what this year has in store. The prize for all of you who have enjoyed opening each door in the Planetary Society's 2010 advent calendar is one of the best views we can get of one of the biggest objects in the asteroid belt, Vesta.