Eve of discovery for large asteroid Vesta, as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft nears

Space scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California must be buzzing on this eve of discovery for the large asteroid Vesta. That’s because NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive in Vesta’s vicinity tomorrow (July 15, 2011) and begin a prolonged encounter with it.

This historic mission will be the first to carry a spacecraft into orbit around a main-belt asteroid, that is, an asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.

As the spacecraft approaches Vesta, surface details are coming into focus, as seen in this recent image.

Image Credit: NASA

This image was taken from a distance of about 26,000 miles (41,000 kilometers).

When Vesta captures Dawn into its orbit, engineers estimate there will be approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) between them. Engineers expect the spacecraft to be captured into orbit at approximately 10 p.m. PDT Friday, July 15 (1 a.m. EDT Saturday, July 16). They expect to hear from the spacecraft and confirm that it performed as planned during a scheduled communications pass that starts at approximately 11:30 p.m. PDT on Saturday, July 16 (2:30 a.m. EDT Sunday, July 17).

At that point, the spacecraft and asteroid will be approximately 117 million miles (188 million kilometers) from Earth.

Dawn will study Vesta for one year, and scientists say the observations will help them understand the earliest chapter of our solar system’s history. Robert Mase, Dawn project manager, said:

It has taken nearly four years to get to this point. Our latest tests and check-outs show that Dawn is right on target and performing normally.

Bottom line: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive in the vicinity of the main-belt asteroid Vesta tomorrow (July 15). Space scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory say the spacecraft is performing normally at this time. Dawn is expected to orbit Vesta for one year.

Look here a current image of Vesta and more information about the Dawn mission.

Watch video of Dawn spacecraft approaching asteroid Vesta

Follow the Dawn mission on Twitter.

July 14, 2011

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