Watch video of Dawn spacecraft approaching asteroid Vesta

A video lets us begin to glimpse surface details on the giant asteroid Vesta, as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft heads in for a final approach.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has let scientists create a new video giving us our first glimpses of the giant asteroid Vesta spinning in space, with surface features coming into view. After nearly four years en route, Dawn is now approaching Vesta in the main asteroid belt.

It’ll arrive at Vesta, and begin orbiting only 400 miles (640 km) above the asteroid’s surface in mid-July 2011.

The video shows Vesta’s surface details beginning to resolve as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft closes in. It shows Vesta spinning in space. It shows this asteroid’s jagged, irregular shape, as well as a dark feature near Vesta’s equator moving from left to right across the field of view as the asteroid rotates. The framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft got the images used for this video animation on June 1, 2011, from a distance of about 300,000 miles (483,000 kilometers).

Vesta – so far, the most geologically diverse of asteroids known in the asteroid belt – will come into crisper view each day as Dawn approaches it.

The German astronomer Heinrich Olbers, who discovered Vesta in 1807, would have loved to see this video!

The Dawn spacecraft is scheduled to begin orbiting Vesta on July 16, 2011. NASA plans to release more images on a weekly basis, with more frequent images available once the spacecraft begins collecting science at Vesta.

Chris Russell: NASA Dawn to orbit Vesta and Ceres

Where is Dawn now?

Vesta, by the way, is named for the Roman virgin goddess of home and hearth. But the Dawn spacecraft has traveled far from home indeed to capture these images.

Bottom line: NASA scientists used images collected by the Dawn spacecraft – now on its final approach to the asteroid Vesta in the asteroid belt – to create a video showing Vesta spinning in space and surface features never seen before. Dawn will arrive at Vesta, and begin orbiting and mapping it, on July 16, 2011. Stay tuned.