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NASA Dawn spacecraft gets cozy with massive asteroid Vesta

August 1, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
There are some out-of-this-world pictures from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. It recently took photos of the asteroid Vesta.

Currently some 117 million miles from Earth, the 330-mile-wide asteroid is found in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The belt formed some 4.65 billion years ago around the same time and under similar conditions as Earth and the inner planets.

These aren't the first pictures NASA has taken of Vesta, but these new images show its surface up close for the first time and appear to resemble Earth's moon.

"After two centuries of observing this fuzzy little blob of light among the stars, Earth now has a robotic emissary in orbit at Vesta," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer.

Dawn, launched by JPL in 2007, will start collecting science data next week once it is positioned 1,700 miles from the surface.

Launched in 2007, Dawn is the first mission to explore Vesta and Ceres, the two largest members of the asteroid belt. Dawn will circle Vesta for a year, hovering as close as 110 miles from the surface, before moving on to Ceres, where it will arrive in 2015.

Though the $466 million project was conceived long before the United States decided to send astronauts to an asteroid by next decade, the data gathered by Dawn should help future manned missions.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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