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Dawn Mission Provides Evidence That Asteroid Vesta Is Indeed A Protoplanet

Data from a mission to the second largest body in the asteroid belt that's between Mars and Jupiter seems to confirm that Vesta is indeed a protoplanet that dates back to the early days of our solar system.

Space.com reports that scientists theorized that Vesta had started down the path toward becoming a planet and data from the Dawn Mission confirms those suspicions. Space.com reports:

"'Those studying meteorites that have fallen to Earth, many from Vesta, had produced a theory on the evolution of the solar system and what Vesta should be made of,' said Dawn principal investigator Chris Russell of UCLA, lead author of one of the six new Science papers.

"'They were very, very right,' Russell told SPACE.com via email. 'This is good, because we can now use that model to understand more about the solar system.'"

As Discovery News reports, that makeup — "an iron core, a varied surface, layers of rock and possibly a magnetic field" — is evidence that Vesta is a "baby planet" not an asteroid.

Scientists also found that Vesta suffered two giant impacts that happened relatively recently — 1 to 2 billion years ago.

The AP adds:

"The back-to-back pounding likely would have shattered any other asteroid, but Vesta somehow survived. Even so, the blows scooped out loads of material from Vesta's surface — enough to fill 400 Grand Canyons, estimated team member David O'Brien of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz.

"Some of the debris was hurled into space and fell to Earth as meteorites. About 1 out of every 20 meteorites found on our planet came from Vesta."

But perhaps the coolest thing about this mission is that data from it was used to create this video of the asteroid:

As we reported last year, the Dawn spacecraft will orbit Vesta until August and will then move on to Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.