Thursday, July 21, 2011

Voyage to Vesta, in Super 3-D!

Yes, after a nice, long rest, the Thrilling Wonder Stories blog is back.  I'm not publishing anything right now, or doing much else, but I decided, hey, why not have some fun talking about the science fiction, science fact, and miscellaneous stuff that catches my attention?

And today, that's NASA's/JPL's Dawn mission to the asteroid belt.  Last Friday, Dawn reached Vesta, the second-largest asteroid, becoming the first probe ever to orbit an object in the belt.  When it's done there, it will become the first probe to leave orbit and visit another body, heading for the big kid on the block, Ceres.  (It's so big, in fact, it's technically a dwarf planet, and not only an asteroid like Vesta.)

As Wikipedia says, "The mission's goal is to characterize the conditions and processes of the solar system's earliest eon by investigating in detail two of the largest protoplanets remaining intact since their formation. Ceres and Vesta have many contrasting characteristics that are thought to have resulted from them forming in two different regions of the early solar system."

I try not to be jaded about probe missions, but the first space mission I was consciously aware of as it was happening was the Voyager 1 Jupiter encounter, and to me, the Voyager program is still the gold standard for this sort of thing.

Maybe NASA and JPL anticipated that reaction, because six days before arrival, they had Dawn capture this 3-D image of the asteroid, which you can view if, like me, you're a big enough nerd that you have your own set of red-blue or red-green 3-D glasses handy.  As I recall, 3-D space photography goes back at least as far as the Viking mission to Mars, but it's still pretty cool.

image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA (MOUSE, and sometimes Y)

You can download a larger version (1024x768, against the 640x480 above) from the press release page on JPL's website.

Now, of course, we need to send astronauts to the asteroid.  Then we need them to do something silly while in orbit, so we can call them "Maroons Off Vesta."

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