A Dawn Participating Scientist’s Story

by David Blewett


It has been a tremendous privilege to be involved in the Dawn mission. I was invited to join the team in 2010, a member of the cadre of Participating Scientists NASA provided to help synthesize the fascinating data being returned from Vesta during the 14 months the spacecraft orbited the protoplanet in 2011 and 2012.

Vesta is an intermediate-sized solar system body, between larger planetary objects like the Moon, and small asteroids like those that have been visited by other spacecraft (Gaspra, Ida, Matilda, Lutetia, Eros, etc.). It orbits the Sun in the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter. For me, the most exciting results from the Vesta phase of the mission are: 1.  the general appearance of Vesta, and 2. findings related to one of my specific areas of research interest, Dawn’s investigation of the nature of surface modification on Vesta—or how the giant asteroid’s surface has changed over time.

Global mosaic of Vesta as taken by Dawn's Framing Camera

Global mosaic of Vesta as taken by Dawn’s Framing Camera

This is a wonderful global mosaic of Vesta, a composite of many images Dawn’s framing camera captured as the spacecraft orbited the asteroid. Before Dawn, all we had were low-resolution views from the Hubble Space Telescope that revealed the rough shape of the asteroid and some brightness variations. We really didn’t know what the surface would look like up close. Would there be large deposits of volcanic plains, like the maria (“seas”) on the Moon, for example?  It turns out that Vesta’s surface is really ancient, and impact cratering long ago eroded any volcanic features that might have existed. To a degree, Vesta is a battered rock, yet it is large enough to have experienced some processes (tectonic faulting, core formation) that occur on larger bodies like the Moon and Mercury. It is so exciting to see a new world for the first time.

Microscopic views of a polished slice of a meteorite from Vesta, a eucrite found in Antarctica.

Microscopic views of a polished slice of a eucrite meteorite from Vesta found in Antarctica.

I am interested in the ways in which exposure to the harsh space environment changes the materials on the surface of airless planetary bodies like the Moon, Mercury, and asteroids. What data do we have? From the Moon, we have samples returned by the Apollo astronauts and Luna robots, and extensive data collected with Earth-based telescopes and orbiting spacecraft. Thus we have a pretty good understanding of how “space weathering” on the Moon operates to alter the colors of the surface and causes bright rays extending from young impact craters to fade with time. Though Vesta is many hundreds of millions of kilometers away, we have actual samples of the asteroid here on Earth in the form of a common class of meteorite, and some limited telescopic data. Until the Dawn mission arrived at Vesta, missing were high-resolution images and color data that allow the geology of the surface to be examined in detail.

Let’s take a close look at new findings from Vesta. This image of the impact crater Vibidia illustrates several points concerning the processes that work to modify Vesta’s surface. First, a bright ejecta blanket and rays surround the crater. Older craters that have been worn down by smaller impacts lack the

Vibidia Crater on Vesta

There is a distinctive distribution of bright and dark material around Vesta’s Vibidia crater, bright rays that extend for roughly 15 kilometers.

bright rays. This tells us that some form of space weathering is taking place – to slowly erase the rays. However, detailed measurements of color by the Dawn framing camera (FC) and visible-infrared imaging spectrometer (VIR) reveal that Vesta’s surface does not become progressively “redder” as a result of space weathering. In this respect, Vesta’s response to its space environment is very different than the Moon’s: the Moon’s surface strongly reddens with increasing exposure age. We think that the reason for the difference has to do with the reduced flux of the solar wind in the asteroid belt compared to that at the Moon (closer to the Sun). Also, the average speed with which micrometeoroids strike Vesta is perhaps four times slower than those that hit the Moon. Bombardment of the lunar surface by the solar wind and micrometeoroids produces much melting and vaporization of the surface rocks and soils, leading to chemical changes and thus the redder color. Thus Vesta’s location in the solar system dictates the way in which its surface materials evolve.

The second key point about Vesta illustrated in the Vibidia image has to do with the dark material on Vibidia’s wall and rim. There is good evidence from FC, VIR, and the Dawn gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND), that this is material like that found in carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. The dark rim and floor material is probably residue from the carbonaceous impactor that hit Vesta to form Vibidia crater. It appears that such carbonaceous material has been mixed globally into Vesta’s surface by countless impacts during Vesta’s history, and also is present in larger amounts in more recent impacts like the one that created Vibidia. These conclusions were presented in several papers by the Dawn science team.*

There are still a number of questions concerning the details of space weathering on Vesta, but Dawn has shown that a distinctive style of space weathering takes place on Vesta. The findings from Vesta are important as scientists seek to understand space weathering as a general phenomenon that takes place throughout the Solar System.

*C. M. Pieters and others (2012), Distinctive space weathering on Vesta from regolith mixing processes, Nature 491, 79-82; T. B. McCord and others (2012), Dark material on Vesta from the infall of carbonaceous volatile-rich material, Nature 491, 83-86; T. H. Prettyman and others (2012), Elemental mapping by Dawn reveals exogenic H in Vesta’s regolith, Science 338, 242-246; M. C. De Sanctis and others (2012), Detection of widespread hydrated materials on Vesta by the VIR imaging spectrometer on board the Dawn mission (2012), Astrophys. Journal Letters 758, L36.

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8 Responses to “A Dawn Participating Scientist’s Story”

  1. Patrick Zawa says:

    Finally Dawn mission had her own science blog and that is great :)
    Thank You !

    I read from an old publication before Dawn Mission about a hypothesis that the “space weathering responses” of Vesta could be affected by a remanent magnetic field.
    This old Vesta magnetic field is suggested by HED analysis. Unfortunately i know that Dawn is missing of a dedicate instrument but is this hypothesis is still valid ? Is there an indirect way to confirm or disprove this hypothesis ?

    • Dawn EPO says:

      The possible role of a magnetic field in protecting Vesta from the space- weathering effects of the solar wind is one of the “details” that I alluded to in the last paragraph of my blog piece. Indeed, there are regions of magnetized rock on the Moon, for example, where that may be responsible for shielding these regions from the effects of the solar wind and inhibiting the normal lunar space-weathering process. Such shielding may produce the unusual bright markings known as “lunar swirls.” This hypothesis for the origin of the lunar swirls is not universally accepted among planetary scientists, however.

      It has been proposed that a similar type of solar-wind shielding prevents Vesta from “reddening” as might be expected (1). Recently, measurement of the remnant magnetism in a eucrite meteorite that probably came from Vesta has been interpreted to mean that Vesta has a magnetic field in its crust that is strong enough to do the job (2).

      Scientists are working to study space weathering as a phenomenon that takes place throughout the Solar System. It is important to understand the variations that occur as a result of differences in the composition of the planetary surface, and the particular environment (for example, speed of micrometeoroid impacts, strength of the solar wind flux) in which the surface resides. Vesta provides key pieces of information in this regard. The wealth of data obtained by Dawn is a tremendous resource that I and many others will be utilizing for many years to come.

      –Dave Blewett, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
      Dawn at Vesta Participating Scientist

      (1) P. Vernazza and coworkers (2006), Asteroid colors: a novel tool for magnetic field detection?
      The case of Vesta, Astronomy & Astrophysics vol. 451, page L43.

      (2) Roger R. Fu and coworkers (2012), An Ancient Core Dynamo in Asteroid Vesta,
      Science vol. 338, page 238.

  2. Mike Dorward says:

    Thank you for your explanation. It makes sense that a relatively small object such as Vesta is very unlikely to capture and fragment another object prior to impact.
    - Mike

    • Whitney Cobb says:

      Thanks for your interest, Mike! Your question and Dave’s answer will be added to the FAQ’s on our site.

      Dawn E/PO (education and public outreach)

  3. Ryan says:

    Great and interesting topic here!

  4. Mike Dorward says:

    I’ve noticed a number of more or less straight lines of craters on images of the moon, Mercury, and Vesta. They remind me of the scars left by the remnants of Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter. Is it thought that these lines of craters are caused by impacts from a previously fragmented body, or could some other mechanism be involved?

    • Dawn EPO says:

      You’ve made a good observation, Mike. There are several processes that can produce lines of craters on a planetary surface.

      First, probably the most common is secondary cratering. The chunks of disrupted target material (“ejecta”) are thrown out of the excavation cavity that forms when a primary impactor strikes a surface. In some cases, portions of the ejecta are launched in a narrow “train” that moves outward radial to the crater’s center. This radial ejecta then impacts the surface, producing a line of secondary craters. This type of crater chain is found on nearly every major solid surface body in the Solar System, and occurs on Vesta.

      Second, pit craters can form when a chain of loose surface material (“regolith”) drains into a fracture that was produced by tectonic activity or by a large impact. Pit craters of this kind are also found on Vesta.

      Third, volcanic vents may sometimes form in a line. For example, eruptions can occur along a rift zone radial to a central volcano, producing a roughly linear chain of volcanic pits. We have not seen evidence of this kind of crater on Vesta.

      And finally, as you mentioned, lines of impact craters can be formed by a fragmented primary projectile. This type is probably the rarest. There are examples of such crater chains on the icy satellites Jupiter. The Davy crater chain on the Moon has been explained as the product of an impact by a single body that broke apart prior to impact due to tidal effects.

      –Dave Blewett, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
      Dawn at Vesta Participating Scientist

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