Dawn has completed the first phase of its exploration of Vesta with tremendous success, and the peripatetic adventurer is now in powered flight again, on its way to a new location from which to scrutinize its subject.
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.