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First views of Vesta from orbit

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on July 17. It was taken from a distance of about 9,500 miles from the asteroid Vesta.

Today NASA unveiled the first pictures of the asteroid Vesta as seen from an orbiting spacecraft. The pictures of the not-quite-round, 330-mile-wide (530-kilometer-wide) world were sent across a distance of 117 million miles (188 million kilometers). after the Dawn orbiter's successful weekend rendezvous.

Dawn went into orbit around 1 a.m. ET Saturday, at a distance of about 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) from Vesta. The pockmarked space rock ranks as the asteroid belt's No. 1 object in brightness, No. 2 in mass (behind the dwarf planet Ceres) and No. 3 in diameter (behind Ceres and the asteroid Pallas).

Size isn't everything: Scientists are interested in Vesta largely because it's thought to be made of the stuff that dominated the early solar system. Once upon a time, before they snowballed into the big planets we see today, most of the objects in our celestial neighborhood may well have looked like Vesta.

"We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system," the $466 million Dawn mission's principal investigator, Christopher Russell of the University of California at Los Angeles, said in today's image advisory. "This region of space has been ignored for far too long. So far, the images received to date reveal a complex surface that seems to have preserved some of the earliest events in Vesta's history, as well as logging the onslaught that Vesta has suffered in the intervening eons."

To me, Vesta's most interesting scar is the huge crater that was left on its southern end by an ancient impact. The crater is roughly the width of Ohio — so big that it looks more like a dent than a crater. The shattering impact threw off a large amount of debris. Astronomers estimate that about 6 percent of the meteorites that fall to Earth have come from the asteroid.

This stereo view of Vesta looks at the south polar crater straight on, which explains why the picture looks so flat, even through red-blue glasses. The terrain seems to be smooshed in by Vesta's blast from the past:

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

This anaglyph image of the south polar region of the asteroid Vesta was put together from two clear filter images, taken on July 9 by the framing camera instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft.The anaglyph image shows the rough topography in the south polar area, including a large mountain, impact craters, grooves and steep scarps in three dimensions. Use red-blue glasses to view in 3-D.

Dawn's arrival at Vesta comes after nearly four years of cruising through deep space. "Dawn slipped gently into orbit with the same grace it has displayed during its years of ion thrusting through interplanetary space," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "It is fantastically exciting that we will begin providing humankind its first detailed view of one of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system."

During the next three weeks, the probe will settle into orbit, look around the asteroid to see if it has any moons, and get ready for a yearlong stretch of scientific observations. In 2012, Dawn will leave Vesta behind and start making its way toward a 2015 rendezvous with Ceres, a 590-mile-wide (950-kilometer-wide) world that has enough bigness and roundness to qualify as a dwarf planet. To find out where Ceres and other worlds stand nowadays, check out our interactive look at "the new solar system."

NASA / JPL-Caltech / JAXA / ESA

This composite shows the comparative sizes of eight asteroids that have been spotted by space probes.

More 3-D views from space:

Got 3-D? NASA provides some suggestions for purchasing red-blue glasses via mail order, and you also may be able to find them at novelty stores. I've been known to send out 3-D glasses to Cosmic Log readers, and although I'm not quite ready for the next giveaway, you'll be the first to know if you "like" the Cosmic Log Facebook page. You can also connect with the Cosmic Log community by following @b0yle on Twitter. To learn even more about Ceres and other dwarf planets (including Pluto, my personal favorite), you can check out my book, "The Case for Pluto."