New observations from NASA Dawn spacecraft show that the huge asteroid Vesta is a battered protoplanet left over from the solar system's early days.
According to the recent findings by NASA spacecraft Dawn, the huge asteroid Vesta is a battered protoplanet left over from the solar system's ancient times. It has a unique mix of characteristics unknown from any other space rock. "Those studying meteorites that have fallen to Earth, many from Vesta, had produced a theory on the evolution of the solar system and what Vesta should be made of," said Dawn principal investigator Chris Russell of UCLA, lead author of one of the six new Science papers.
"They were very, very right," Russell told Space.com via email. "This is good, because we can now use that model to understand more about the solar system."
One of their main objective, researchers said, was to determine if Vesta is indeed a long-surviving protoplanet, a body left over from the solar system's first few million years, many of which later merged to form rocky planets such as Earth and Mars.
Scientists got this idea mainly by examining fallen howardite-eucrite-diogenite (or HED) meteorites, which are thought to come from Vesta. The new Dawn results strongly support the protoplanet notion — by confirming that Vesta is indeed the HED meteorites' parent body, for starters.
Moreover, the huge asteroid isn't just some chunk of uniform rock. Rather, it's now known to be an object with an iron core about 137 miles (220 km) wide. That's big enough, perhaps, to have once sustained a dynamo like the one that generates Earth's magnetic field, researchers said.
"We now know that Vesta is large enough to have had its own internal geologic evolution and is not just a battered lump of rock," said Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, lead author of another of the new studies. This also implies that Vesta must have formed very early in the solar system's history, when short-lived radioactive materials could have trapped heat inside these protoplanetary bodies, allowing some melting to occur.
Interesting info about Vesta:
The giant asteroid Vesta got battered not once but twice, and it has the scars to prove it. The double strikes occurred relatively recently about 1 to 2 billion years ago.
Located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Vesta is not your usual looking asteroid. Vesta is shaped like an avocado with its iron core and differentiated layers. Measuring 330 miles across, it's the second largest object in the asteroid belt. With a diameter of about 330 miles (530 kilometers), Vesta is roughly as wide as the U.S. state of Arizona. In the main asteroid belt, only the dwarf planet Ceres is bigger. Vesta is the brightest asteroid visible from Earth.
Scientists are intrigued by asteroids because they're leftovers from the solar system's birth some 4.5 billion years ago and studying them can offer clues about how Earth and rocky planets emerged.
Vesta was discovered by Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers on 29 March 1807,and is named after 'Vesta', the virgin goddess of home and hearth from Roman mythology.
Many more intriguing results should follow when this is just the beginning of the revelation of Vesta's secrets.