Scientists stunned by surface of asteroid Vesta

Posted Aug. 01, 2011, at 9:06 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — The first close-up pictures of the asteroid Vesta reveal a northern hemisphere littered with craters and a smoother southern half, researchers reported Monday.

Running along the asteroid’s equator are deep grooves — a surprise to scientists who did not expect to see such features.

The images were taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which began orbiting the 330-mile-wide rocky body last month and beaming back incredible surface details that the team is only beginning to pore over. It’s the first time that Vesta has been viewed up close. Until now, it has only been photographed from afar.

Since entering orbit, Dawn has taken more than 500 pictures, while refining its path and inching ever closer to the surface to get a better view. The probe will officially start collecting science data next week once it is 1,700 miles from the surface. It will get as close as 110 miles while it orbits Vesta for a year.

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