Thursday, September 6, 2012

Dawn and Vesta

On Wednesday (5 September 2012), the probe Dawn left the asteroid Vesta, a 525km (236 miles, for those who dislike metric) wide hunk of rock orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter in our main asteroid belt.  Vesta happens to be a very special asteroid, however. Besides being the 2nd most massive asteroid, it is a fossil of sorts, a link to how rocky planets like Earth may have formed.

Vesta is the last protoplanet with a differentiated interior. This means that if we were to take a chunk out of the asteroid, we'd see that it has a crust, mantle and core, just like Earth.

Earth's interior
Vesta's interior

This is very exciting and very important, because the Earth was most likely formed from a protoplanet similar to Vesta.  There are estimated to have been a few hundred bodies like Vesta, which eventually (over the course of 100 million years) collided due to perturbations in their orbits and formed the dominant 8 planets we know today. (Before you say "what about Pluto?!", hang on! I'll address our lonely little friend in my next post.)  

The Dawn mission objective is to visit Vesta (done!) and Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt.  These two bodies are useful because of some specific characteristics.
  1. Vesta has highly magnetized rocks. These, along with a differentiated interior, could help explain what starts a planetary dynamo. This is the process that creates a magnetic field, which in turn helps shield a planet from solar winds.  (Earth has a very strong magnetic field, while Mars has a very weak one.)
  2. Ceres is believed to have a layer of surface or sub surface water ice, as well as a thin but permanent atmosphere.
These two bodies present incredible insights into the formation of worlds like Earth. It could help us understand our own origins, and possibly predict what we'll encounter around stars similar to our own.

Wikipedia, "Protoplanet"

No comments:

Post a Comment