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Ready for Vesta

May 2, 2011

A spacecraft that's scheduled to orbit two asteroids is still a couple of months away from its first destination. But planetary scientists are already preparing for what it will find. They've adopted a scheme for naming features on the asteroid's surface.

The asteroid is Vesta, which was named for the Roman goddess of the home and family. It's one of the largest asteroids, and the brightest as seen from here on Earth. It's still so small and far away, though, that even the best views show only a few dark blotches.

But a mission called Dawn is scheduled to enter orbit around Vesta in July. It'll spend a year mapping the asteroid's surface before heading for its second target, Ceres.

Dawn most likely will see hundreds of craters on Vesta's surface, plus a handful of other features, such as canyons and plains.

Not surprisingly, many of those features will receive names that are associated with the Vesta myth. That includes Vesta's priestesses, the Vestal virgins, as well as famous women from the real Rome. Other features will be named for the astronomers who discovered Vesta, and the scientists who have studied it.

Vesta is among the dozens of solar system objects that have been seen in enough detail to need names for their surface features -- objects that include planets, moons, and other asteroids. One of those asteroids just had its own naming scheme approved a few weeks ago. More about the asteroid Lutetia tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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