Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We have reached Vesta

As you read this, NASA’s Dawn space probe is orbiting the asteroid Vesta, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. 

"We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system," said Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell, of UCLA.  That’s right, Vesta has been around since the get-go of our star system.  Given its 330-mile diameter, several astronomers view Vesta as more of a “protoplanet,” a stellar body that was on its way to becoming a planet similar in composition to Earth but never quite made it.  For that very reason, the study of Vesta that Dawn affords will give us a greater understanding of how planets come to be and that in turn gives us a clearer picture of how the cosmos works.  After all, we’re still not exactly certain of how life arose on the this planet from initially inorganic matter.  If microbes and other microscopic life exist on asteroids and meteors, that could explain much as to how life got here (look up the theory of “panspermia.”)
Additionally, determining Vesta’s composition can tell us what minerals could one day be mined from an asteroid.  Valuable metals and other ores abound inside asteroids.  This is one point of contention that I have with ancient astronaut theorists.  There are those in their number who claim that visitors came to us long ago to take our gold, silver, and other precious minerals.  Why?  It would be far easier for an advanced civilization to get all that from an asteroid, to say nothing of the shorter journey as asteroids are pretty much everywhere.  Indeed, President Obama has directed NASA to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025, a step that could be a forerunner to actual mining operations.
But perhaps most pertinent of all, any knowledge of asteroids is a good thing to have as one might try to kill us.  I have blogged several times before about the risk and the terrible aftermath of a significant asteroid hit on the Earth.  Placing a spacecraft in orbit around one as we have done with Vesta is a critical step in determining how we could deploy future space vehicles to alter the trajectory of an incoming “planetkiller.”  I’d call that a necessity.

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