I have to admit it: three months ago I did not understand why space science is important. This is a pretty bold statement coming from a practicing aerospace engineer, but recent events have corrected this lack of understanding, and I am not embarrassed to correct myself in this blog. But let us not get ahead of the story.
I had to wait until the kids were in bed and the husband fed last night before I finally had time to sit down and really look at the Dawn images of Vesta. And I still hardly knew where to begin. This brand new world is just so different than others I've seen.
When a spacecraft has visited a new body for the first time, the usual answer to any scientific question is "it's too early to know; we need to study the data more." Scientists are usually very careful to avoid speculation while they're on press panels. But today's press briefing wasn't like that at all.
Now that Dawn's close enough to Vesta, we're seeing absolutely spectacular detail and tremendous diversity across Vesta's surface. As usual it'll probably take me a while to bring together all the new information, so as a stopgap I'm going to post an awesome image and a rotation movie.
After covering 2.8 billion kilometers (1.7 billion miles) on its own, after traveling for nearly four years through the lonely emptiness of interplanetary space, after being bound by the gravity only of the sun, Dawn is finally in orbit around Vesta.
Maybe it's my own peculiar variant of pareidolia, but every time I see a new image of Vesta I'm reminded of some different other lumpy body in the solar system. In the image released just now by the Dawn team, taken from 10,500 kilometers away, I'm seeing Hyperion.
Yet another sharp-eyed reader (I love my readers!) pointed out to me that the German-language release on the MPS website about the latest Vesta image from Dawn included what looked like a tiny thumbnail of a color view.
A sharp-eyed reader noticed that a size comparison montage posted by the Dawn mission today included an image of Vesta that had not yet been released separately to the public, and it is a very cool one.
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!
If you had asked me last year what I was most looking forward to in space in 2011, my answer would have been unhesitating: Dawn's approach to Vesta. Never in my adult life have I been able to follow a space mission as it discovered a large new world for the first time.
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.