Vesta’s 13 Mile-High Mountain et al

About this time in 2009 I could have been rightfully accused of spending a lot of the year tracking the positions of all the larger asteroids including Vesta as part of an ongoing project.  And at that point I could accurately be accused of having learned a lot without having learned anything I could understand.

NASA – Oblique View of Vesta’s South Polar Region .

But one of the big news items of 2011 involves Vesta, or more specifically, the discovery it has a 13 mile high  mountain.

Space Mountain Produces Terrestrial Meteorites

Dec. 30, 2011: When NASA’s Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around giant asteroid Vesta in July, scientists fully expected the probe to reveal some surprising sights. But no one expected a 13-mile high mountain, two and a half times higher than Mount Everest, to be one of them.

The existence of this towering peak could solve a longstanding mystery: How did so many pieces of Vesta end up right here on our own planet?

Space Mountain (side view, 558px)

A side view of Vesta’s great south polar mountain. [more]

For many years, researchers have been collecting Vesta meteorites from “fall sites” around the world. The rocks’ chemical fingerprints leave little doubt that they came from the giant asteroid. Earth has been peppered by so many fragments of Vesta, that people have actually witnessed fireballs caused by the meteoroids tearing through our atmosphere. Recent examples include falls near the African village of Bilanga Yanga in October 1999 and outside Millbillillie, Australia, in October 1960.

“Those meteorites just might be pieces of the basin excavated when Vesta’s giant mountain formed,” says Dawn PI Chris Russell of UCLA.

Curiosity and the Solar Storm (signup)

Russell believes the mountain was created by a ‘big bad impact’ with a smaller body; material displaced in the smashup rebounded and expanded upward to form a towering peak. The same tremendous collision that created the mountain might have hurled splinters of Vesta toward Earth.

“Some of the meteorites in our museums and labs,” he says, “could be fragments of Vesta formed in the impact — pieces of the same stuff the mountain itself is made of.”

To confirm the theory, Dawn’s science team will try to prove that Vesta’s meteorites came from the mountain’s vicinity. It’s a “match game” involving both age and chemistry.

“Vesta formed at the dawn of the solar system,” says Russell. “Billions of years of collisions with other space rocks have given it a densely cratered surface.”

The surface around the mountain, however, is tellingly smooth. Russell believes the impact wiped out the entire history of cratering in the vicinity. By counting craters that have accumulated since then, researchers can estimate the age of the landscape.

Space Mountain (cross sections, 558px)

Cross-section of the south polar mountain on Vesta with the cross sections of Olympus Mons on Mars, the largest mountain in the solar system, and the Big lsland of Hawaii as measured from the floor of the Pacific, the largest mountain on Earth. These latter two mountains are both shield volcanoes.Credit: Russell et. al. (2011), EPSC

“In this way we can figure out the approximate age of the mountain’s surface. Using radioactive dating, we can also tell when the meteorites were ‘liberated’ from Vesta. A match between those dates would be compelling evidence of a meteorite-mountain connection.”

For more proof, the scientists will compare the meteorites’ chemical makeup to that of the mountain area.

“Vesta is intrinsically but subtly colorful. Dawn’s sensors can detect slight color variations in Vesta’s minerals, so we can map regions of chemicals and minerals that have emerged on the surface. Then we’ll compare these colors to those of the meteorites.”

Could an impact on Vesta really fill so many museum display cases on Earth? Stay tuned for answers..
Author: Dauna Coulter | Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

By early-to-mid 2010 the message was plain enough to me that I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for by spending anymore time and effort with asteroids.  But seeing this story at the NASA site was a bit like having an old acquaintance but-not-quite-not-quite-friend stop in for a cup of coffee without any ulterior motives other than to pass the time of day.

Old Jules

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6 responses to “Vesta’s 13 Mile-High Mountain et al

  1. How did you track Vista? Did you take photos to compare its location to the back ground stars? What type of cd chip do you use for your photos or do you use film. If you don’t take photos, how do you track the asteroids? Just curious.

    • Morning DizzyDick: Thanks for the visit. I don’t track anything by instruments. I use the software developed by the US Naval Observatory: MICA – Multiyear Interactive Computer Almanac http://aa.usno.navy.mil/software/

      If I need more detail for what I’m doing I use the data collected from other international sources posted on the web, or historical data from the various US government sources. Gracias, J

  2. Happy New Year Jules. Over here is less than 25 minutes to go. May your New Year be filled with love, happiness, prosperity and all that you desire. Best Regards. Michael.

    • Thank you Michael. You must be down to a couple of minutes. I’m tempted to go outdoors and fire a shotgun into the air celebrating with you. Best to you amigo. Gracias, Jules

  3. Mighty interesting but too deep for me on New Year’s Eve.

    • Morning LCTC!: Here’s wishing you whatever you consider best for yourself in 2012. Yeah, it wasn’t a standard issue New Years Eve post. But I didn’t expect much traffic on the blog [didn’t get much, either] and I wanted to summarize the oak wilt thing while it was fresh on my mind. Glad you came by. Jules

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