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NASA Scientists: First Photos Show "Snowman" On Asteroid Vesta

Norman Byrd's picture

The Dawn orbiting spacecraft has sent back some images that have excited scientists back on Earth. Among them is an image of three aligned craters, each smaller the its neighbor, that resembles -- of all things -- a snowman.

NASA scientists studying the images taken by the Dawn spacecraft that went into orbit around the asteroid Vesta on July 15 have discovered a rather striking array of three impact craters aligned along its surface. The alignment, with each crater's rim linked to its neighbor, has prompted scientists to nickname the arrangement "Snowman."

The Dawn spacecraft photographed the set of craters on July 24, according to Space.com. The discovery was announced on August 1, with Holger Sierks from the camera framing team at the Max Planck Society describing the find. In the first full-frame photo of the asteroid, he noted that the most distant crater was smaller and looks like the head of a snowman, with the two larger craters making up the rest of a traditional three-part snowman.

Sierks noted that the craters were of even greater interest to observers because of how shallow they appeared to be.

Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., stated in a press conference: "Now that we are in orbit around one of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system, we can see that it's a unique and fascinating place."

The images were taken for observation purposes as well as for navigation reasons. The full set of images encircle the planetoid, which revolves on its axis every five hours and 20 minutes.

Images also have revealed some remarkable grooving along Vesta's surface. A video of the NASA space project shows the asteroid in motion, the grooves apparent and defined.

Jim Green, planetary division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, stated: "The new observations of Vesta are an inspirational reminder of the wonders unveiled through ongoing exploration of our solar system."

His words were a grim reminder that the future of NASA's overall space program remains uncertain. The Atlantis flew the last of the shuttle missions, ending the program with its touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21, just days after the Dawn mission began.

The "Snowman" crater array photo is just one of several that NASA has released as the craft begins its year-long exploratory mission above the small planetoid. The Dawn orbiter, which is the first spacecraft ever to establish an orbit around a body located within the Asteroid Belt, will study Vesta, then break orbit to make its way to the largest asteroid in the Belt, Ceres, which is technically classified as a dwarf planet. Vesta itself is the second largest object in the Belt and is roughly the size of the state of Arizona.

Dawn will leave Vesta orbit in July 2012.

(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA, Wikimedia Commons)

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