NASA spacecraft set to probe two planet wannabes

The mission to Vesta and Ceres, set for launch Thursday, aims to study origin of the solar system.

Among all the objects in the solar system, tiny Vesta and Ceres don't exactly turn heads. They orbit the sun in the asteroid belt, amid the solar system's refuse. They lack rings, red spots, or other adornments. They're just there.

But what Vesta and Ceres lack in majesty they make up for in clues to how planets form, astronomers say. Moreover, Ceres may host an underground ocean suitable for simple forms of life.

On Thursday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is set to launch Dawn, a spacecraft designed to orbit Vesta, then Ceres, beginning in August 2011. Armed with a camera and two other instruments, the craft will gather a wealth of chemical, mineral, and other data on these two starkly contrasting cases of planetary arrested development.

"The differences between Ceres and Vesta are a real puzzle," says Thomas McCord, a planetary scientist at the Bear Fight Center in Winthrop, Wash., and a member of the Dawn science team.

Although they swing around the sun inside the asteroid belt, which falls between Mars and Jupiter, Vesta and Ceres are not asteroids, astronomers note. Rather, they are fully formed objects that grew as asteroids – chips knocked off of other old blocks – clumped together into planet wannabes.

Instead of a planet, an asteroid belt

European astronomers discovered the duo in the early 1800s as they searched for a planet predicted to orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Today, astronomers calculate that the asteroid belt holds enough raw material to form a full-scale planet. But within the solar system's first 10 million years, Jupiter stretched its gravitational reach far enough to ensure that chaos would reign among the asteroids. Ceres and Vesta managed to form, but Jupiter stunted their growth. Ceres, which orbits about 38 million miles farther from the sun than does Vesta, is a little less than 600 miles across. Vesta averages about 330 miles wide.

Despite their small sizes, these "protoplanets have experienced planetary processes," says Dr. McCord. By that he means that as these objects collected more material, they trapped heat generated by the decay of radioactive elements the material contained. Material melted, then separated – and the heavier material collected toward the objects' centers and the lighter material moved toward the surface.

The first clues about what these objects are like came from studies using ground-based telescopes. Estimates of the densities of the two objects suggested that Ceres is about 25 percent water, while Vesta is probably as dry as a bone. Spectroscopic studies indicate that Vesta's surface is covered in volcanic basalts. Indeed, studies show a strong likeness between Vesta's makeup and that of a class of meteorites scientists have picked up in Antarctica and vast deserts. Vesta has an enormous ding at its south pole – a crater some 285 miles across and 8 miles deep. At its center sits a peak that rises 11 miles from the crater floor. The lost chunk could be the source for the meteorites found on Earth.

If Dawn confirms the link, "that would be wonderful," says Thomas Prettyman, a planetary scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a member of the Dawn team. It would mean that scientists could conduct more-detailed studies of Vesta's evolution as a protoplanet without leaving Earth.

Hints of water on Ceres

Perhaps more intriguing is Dawn's second target, Ceres. It, too, gives hints of undergoing internal changes that sent heavy material to its center and lighter material to its surface. But its nearly spherical shape also hints at a layer of liquid water beneath the crust.

Recent spectroscopic studies found that Ceres's surface is covered with minerals – carbonates and iron-rich clays – that require water to form. Ceres may have an iron core, overlaid with minerals called silicates, then liquid water, then ice, and finally, the crust, a modeling study McCord published two years ago suggests. Or, the core may be made entirely of silicates. Either way, materials are likely to be present – heat, water, organic compounds, and salts – that could yield an environment hospitable for simple forms of life to develop.

"It's fair to speculate that if you have liquid water over a warm core, you might have hydrothermal vents," he says.

As for Ceres's and Vesta's different compositions, that could be a function of their distances from the sun. Ceres is located just across what astronomers dub "the snow line," where sunlight is weak enough for ices and other readily evaporated materials to remain stable. Or Vesta could merely be older, giving its internal heat engine more time to dry things out.

A groundbreaking mission

Whatever the explanation, Dawn is a potentially groundbreaking mission, researchers say. As a technical feat, it's the first craft to orbit two planetary objects back to back. It's also the first formal US science mission to use ion-drive, a kind of electric motor NASA tested during its Deep Space 1 mission, launched in 1998. Dawn will spend 10 months at Vesta, beginning in August 2011, then travel to Ceres for a six-month visit.

"I really think this is going to give us some exciting science," Dr. Prettyman says.

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