This promises to be a bountiful year of discovery for UCLA space scientist Christopher Russell and his team of some 80 scientists from planetary and astrophysical institutes and universities around the world.
Since July, an unconventionally propelled spacecraft named Dawn has been orbiting an asteroid after making a 1.7 billion-mile, four-year journey from Earth. Russell, a professor of geophysics and space physics and the chief science investigator of the ambitious Dawn Mission, has been waiting 17 years — since 1994 when he first proposed the project to NASA — to reach Vesta. The asteroid, researchers hope, will provide answers to some fundamental questions about how the Earth — and other planets — formed.
"I’ve been caught calling Vesta the smallest of the terrestrial planets," said Russell with a mischievous smile. "It’s not just a rock. It was an active body at one time, getting bigger, growing, trying to do the same things that the Earth does. But it didn’t have much gravity." Located in the main asteroid belt, it also didn’t fit comfortably into the International Astronomical Union’s definition of a planet.
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