Yesterday NASA released this photo of Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Vesta is about 300 miles across and this picture was taken from 3,000 miles away.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft was launched in September 2007 and attained orbit around Vesta on July 16, 2011. It will orbit the asteroid for one year, then move on to Ceres. NASA states that Dawn’s mission is to “characterize the conditions and processes of the solar system’s earliest epoch by investigating in detail two of the largest protoplanets remaining intact since their formations.”
There are some amazing photos, which you can check out here: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/dawn/multimedia/index.html
You might want to watch the video of Vesta’s rotation as well. If you check the photo archives, it’s interesting to see how the pictures show more and more detail as Dawn gets closer. The “Snowman” craters are cool looking and the grooves near the south pole are intriguing.
When I was doing research I was surprised to learn that some of the meteorites found on Earth originated on Vesta. I knew that many of our meteorites were from the asteroid belt (turns out it’s 99.8% of them) but I hadn’t realized we could identify a specific asteroid origin. The American Museum of Natural History has an article that explains how we know they’re from Vesta. http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/meteorites/planets/vesta.php