Load Up The Car, We’re Going To Vesta

A section of Vesta’s southern hemisphere imaged by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft from low orbit in 2011-12. Click for large version with a resolution of 75 feet per pixel. All photos credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Before voice navigation and cellphones we all kept our car glovebox stuffed with maps of favorite states traveled. Some of us still do. When you needed directions to a city, you unfolded the map or atlas on your lap and followed the vein-like red and blue lines to the your destination.

Vesta’s equatorial regions are scarred by a series of deep, parallel grooves or geologic faults, likely created when a smaller asteroid blasted out the huge Rheasilvia basin at the asteroid’s south pole. One of the bigger ones is named Divalia Fossa. Click to enlarge.

Now there’s an out-of-this-world virtual atlas that let’s you do the same. If you’re ever in a mood to drive around the asteroid Vesta, you can have at it. NASA has released 29 maps created from 10,000 images shot by Dawn spacecraft’s framing camera from 130 miles (210 kilometers) high. The maps are at a level similar to the state maps you’d pick up at a roadside rest; one inch covers a little more than 3 miles of asteroid (1cm = 2km).

Antonia Crater in Vesta’s southern hemisphere is about 9 miles (15 km) across and appears partly filled with debris possibly deposited by another impact. This picture is a tight crop from one of the 29 maps. Click to enlarge.

The level of detail is astonishing. Just click on one of the photos, allow a couple minutes to download and then go for a ride with your mouse. Each of the maps was pieced together as a mosaic using 400 images. Three different projections were applied depending on latitude: Mercator for equatorial regions, Lambert conical projections for mid-latitudes and a stereographic projection for the Rheasilvia Basin at Vesta’s south pole.

Vesta was the fourth asteroid discovered. It’s 326 miles (525 km) across, large and bright enough to occasionally be visible with the naked eye. Credit: NASA

Because Vesta’s north pole was still in mid-winter darkness during part of the mapping, a small patch there escaped coverage. Otherwise the map is complete.

Vesta, first seen by German astronomer Heinrich Olbers in 1807, was only the 4th object to be discovered in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, hence its formal designation of 4 Vesta.  It was named after the goddess of the hearth, home and family in ancient Rome. All the names of geological features on Vesta relate to Roman Vestals (priestesses of Vesta), famous Roman women and cities in which the cult of Vesta is known or festivals in which the Vestals participated.

Vast aprons of rock and soil fallen from the walls of Matronalia Cliff on Vesta are highlighted in this image. Click for large version.

To see all the maps as well as a helpful series of pdf files identifying features and locations, click HERE. I’ve been enjoying my ramble across Vesta and hope you’ll do the same. The only thing missing are the roads.

4 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    I am sorry if I missed it, but is Vesta at opposition? If it is it would be highest about 1:20 AM where I live. If it were not for the clouds I could have seen the Moon set this morning at that time and 7 minutes later a much harder challenge, watch Jupiter rise. At 5 AM is the highest and latest time before twilight to view the Fall trio of comets. I understand that all 3 have left Pluto in the dust, sort of speak, with ISON and Lovejoy at magnitude 12 and Encke at around 11.

  2. Steven

    Alright, let’s start looking for those self-replicating mining spacecraft from one of our fellow Milky Way inhabitants!

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