This week in science

Dawn

An artist’s conception of Dawn between asteroids Vesta and Ceres, courtesy NASA

While the Netroots is winding down from our annual meeting, another exciting encounter is about to unfold hundreds of millions of miles away in the cold, lonely reaches of the asteroid belt. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is nearing Vesta. If all goes well, the unmanned probe will begin beaming back high resolution images of one of the more mysterious objects in our solar system next month.

Principal Mission Investigator Christopher Russell is deservedly bursting with pride and excitement, telling me in part, “I and the Dawn team right now feel like Christopher Columbus and his crew must have felt after putting their faith in their three little ships and finally seeing the American shore ahead.” Russell, who invested 15 years of his own life into designing and managing the ambitious mission, added, “Like Columbus we have a very modest expedition conveyed by three little ion engines, but those little engines were quite sufficient for us to make the journey. The moment is profound and it is exciting to be finally at Vesta!”

4 Vesta

Vesta seen by Hubble

4 Vesta as it’s officially known, is the brightest asteroid as seen from earth and one of the first discovered way back in 1807. Up to now our best photos are blurry, splotchy images showing gross features on the order of tens of miles in size. But little of the fine detail is known. The spacecraft will learn more about Vesta in the next 30 days than we’ve discovered in the last 200 years combined
The best part is Dawn won’t be marooned off Vesta. After examining the enigmatic worldlet up close and personal with a suite of instruments for a year, Dawn will fire up her triple redundant Xenon ion thrusters and head for another equally tantalizing and mysterious object: the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015.

  • I’m not entirely sure why we should care, but 49 out of the 51 Miss America contestants expressed skepticism over evolution. The contest winner, Miss California, was one of two who did stick up for science (The other was Miss Massachusetts). Maybe next year we should ask the contestants if they prefer Loop Quantum Gravity or String Theory …
  • Via Bad Astronomy addressing Arctic ice loss, a new paper published in the American Geophysical Union (.pdf) handily debunks the denier zombie lie that a single average volcano yeilds more CO2 than human activity creates in a year. The actual figures: humans out greenhouse gas volcanoes by a hefty a hundred to one.
  • Dude, where’s my robotic car? In Nevada, they’re legal!




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