Officials at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California, who manage the Dawn mission around the giant asteroid Vesta, have just released a new video showing the space rock's many colors. The dataset was put together from images collected by the orbiter over several months.Dawn was launched into space on September 27, 2007 aboard a Delta II delivery system, from Space Launch Complex 17B (SLC-17B) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), in Florida.
It managed to achieve orbital insertion around the solar system's largest asteroid on July 16, 2011, and is scheduled to continue exploring the potential protoplanet through August 26, 2012. Once this stage of the mission is complete, it will break Vesta orbit, and set a course for the dwarf planet Ceres.
Its mission plan makes Dawn the first spacecraft intended to visit two separate extraterrestrial bodies during the same trip. This is made possible by its advanced ion thrusters, which enable it to conduct the complex maneuvers required for such a task. It is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in February 2015.
While in orbit around Vesta, Dawn occupied three different science orbits, and then moved into its current one, the fourth. This enabled the instruments aboard the spacecraft to collect a large amount of data on the asteroid's rich geological history, its surface features, gravitational pull and so on.
Its observations enabled scientists to create a 3D model of the space rock's surface, on top of which high-resolution, false-color images were placed to produce the new video. The material properties of Vesta in the context of its topography are also included in the clip.
According to the JPL group, many of the colors used in this model were selected to highlight differences in geological composition that are simply too subtle for the human eye to detect.
“Scientists are still analyzing what some of the colors mean for the composition of the surface. But it is clear that the orange material thrown out from some impact craters is different from the surrounding surface material,” experts at the Lab say in a press release.
“Green shows the relative abundance of iron. Parts of the huge impact basin known as Rheasilvia in Vesta's southern hemisphere, for instance, have areas with less iron than nearby areas,” they add.
A portion of the mountain of the south pole and some areas in the north were not photographed by Dawn's framing camera on account of viewing restrictions. However, the JPL group expects to capture the necessary images before departing the asteroid's orbit.
The Dawn video can be viewed here.