Visit Vesta on a Vespa…

image…okay, not really. But Dawn, NASA’s ion drive-propelled space probe launched in 2007 is a better ride anyway. Dawn visited Vesta, a protoplanet in the asteroid belt, in 2011, and just arrived around another protoplanet, Ceres, on March 6th.

Asteroids are of keen interest to solar system scientists, who are keen to unlock the origin of not just the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but the origins of the solar system itself. NASA hopes to launch a mission in the near future to redirect and capture an asteroid, too. This could be lucrative (think giant floating nickel mines) but also essential (think diverting a large asteroid on a life-extinguishing crash course with earth). Anyway, Dawn has provided us with a detailed view of what one such asteroid looks like up close, and no, no sign of a cave with teeth around the opening.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (which monograms its bicycle jerseys with JPL, much to the chagrin and confusion of the John Paul Lollibees of the world) just released a web-based app called Vestatrek, which is very cool indeed. Check it out.

It works best on a desktop unit.  The 3d feature is where it’s at. You can also view Vesta in true color, and overlay data on things like hydrogen and iron deposits. It’s very cool. And unlike a Hollywood adventure, this is real data (and Zentraedi won’t try to shoot you down). Apparently, the lucky few with a 3D printer can download data so they print their own mini-vesta (along with a cup of Earl Grey, hot). While I’m busy filling this post with as many pop-sci-fi references as I can, you can be blissing out in orbit around Vesta. So make it so.

By the way, two names of craters caught my eye: Calpurnia, the Finch’s cook in To Kill a Mockingbird (Zora’s favorite book) and Drusilla, the insane vampiress from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I suspect the International Astronomical Union had some older characters in mind. But if mythology is your thing, go research those names and let me know who the first Cal and Dru were.

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