National Aeronautics and Space Administration
A Journey to the Beginning o the Solar System
Exploring a new rontier, the Dawn mission will journeyback in time over 4.5 billion years to the beginning o ourSolar System. How is this “time travel” possible? Manythousands o small bodies orbit the Sun in the asteroidbelt—a large region between the orbits o Mars and Jupiter.They ormed at the same time and in similar environmentsas the bodies that grew to be the rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars). Scientists theorize that theasteroids were budding planets and never given theopportunity to grow, due to gravitational stirring by massiveJupiter. Sometimes called minor planets, asteroids containclues that reveal the conditions and processes actingat the Solar System’s earliest epoch. By investigatingtwo very dierent asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, the Dawnmission seeks to unlock some o the mysteries o planetaryormation.
Why Vesta and Ceres?
Caught up in a cosmic tug o war between the Sunand Jupiter, two o the largest inhabitants o the mainasteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres, survived the collisionalenvironment o the region and have remained intact sincetheir ormations. Furthermore, evidence shows that eachhas distinct characteristics; thereore, each must haveollowed a dierent evolutionary path. Vesta appears tobe dry, evolved, and dierentiated with surace eaturesranging rom basaltic lava ows to a deep crater near itssouthern pole. Ceres, in contrast, has a dusty, clay-likesurace and evidence o water, which has led scientists tosuspect the presence o a thick water-ice mantle. Vesta’sphysical characteristics reect those o the inner planets,whereas Ceres’ are more like the icy moons o the outerplanets. By studying these contrasts and comparing thesetwo minor planets, scientists will develop an understandingo the transition rom the rocky inner regions to the icy outerregions o the Solar System.
The Dawn spacecraft will provide exciting and valuable data from its ambitious journey to Vesta (left) and Ceres (right).
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