Image: Canuleia
NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / UMd
Bright material extends out from the crater Canuleia on the asteroid Vesta in this image from NASA's Dawn spacecraft, obtained by the probe's framing camera on Oct. 25, 2011.
By Managing editor
updated 3/21/2012 7:20:11 PM ET 2012-03-21T23:20:11

A NASA spacecraft orbiting the huge asteroid Vesta has snapped amazing new photos of the colossal space rock, images that reveal strange features never before seen on an asteroid, scientists say.

The new photos of Vesta from NASA's Dawn spacecraft highlight odd, shiny spots that are nearly twice as bright as other parts of the asteroid — suggesting it is original material left over from the space rock's birth 4 billion years ago, NASA officials said Wednesday.

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With a width of about 330 miles (530 kilometers), asteroid Vesta is one of the largest and brightest objects in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. NASA's Dawn probe has been orbiting Vesta since 2011 to study the space rock in unprecedented detail.

"Our analysis finds this bright material originates from Vesta and has undergone little change since the formation of Vesta over 4 billion years ago," Jian-Yang Li, a Dawn participating scientist at the University of Maryland at College Park, said in a statement. "We're eager to learn more about what minerals make up this material and how the present Vesta surface came to be."

The photos show surprisingly bright spots all over Vesta, with the most predominant ones located inside or around the asteroid's many craters. The bright areas range from large spots (around several hundred feet across) to simply huge, with some stretching across 10 miles (16 kilometers) of terrain. [Video: Vesta — Asteroid or Dwarf Planet?]

"Dawn's ambitious exploration of Vesta has been going beautifully," said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees the mission. "As we continue to gather a bounty of data, it is thrilling to reveal fascinating alien landscapes."

Dawn mission scientists suspect that the bright patches on Vesta were exposed during violent collisions with other space rocks. These impacts may have spread the bright material across the asteroid and mixed it together with darker material on Vesta's surface, researchers said.

Astronomers have known about variations in Vesta's brightness for some time. Photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope before Dawn arrived at the asteroid also revealed the bright patches.

But only the close-up photos from the Dawn probe have revealed the surprising variety of dark blotches on Vesta, which appear as dark gray, brown or reddish blemishes, NASA officials said.

Image: Bright spots
NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / UMd
This image from Dawn shows the brightest area seen on Vesta so far.
Image: Dark material
NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / ASU
This mosaic from NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows dark material near a series of craters known as the "Snowman" on Vesta. That ejected material is a complex mixture of components. They probaby include dark material thrown out from the craters during the impacts that created them (ejecta), as well as darker melt that occurred during the impact. The images were obtained from Oct. 11 to 16, 2011.

In some views, these darker spots are small deposits near impact craters, while in other photos they appear in larger concentrations. These darker spots on Vesta may also be the result of collisions on the asteroid, researchers said.

Slow carbon-rich asteroids may have created some of the smaller dark material deposits without carving out a big crater. Meanwhile, faster objects may have potentially slammed into Vesta so hard they melted the big asteroid's crust, which could have also created the dark spots.

"Some of these past collisions were so intense they melted the surface," said Brett Denevi, a Dawn participating scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "Dawn's ability to image the melt marks a unique find. Melting events like these were suspected, but never before seen on an asteroid."

NASA launched the $466 million Dawn spacecraft in 2007, and Vesta is only the first stop of the spacecraft's two-asteroid tour. Dawn arrived at Vesta in July 2011 and is expected to spend about a year there before heading off to its next target — the even larger asteroid Ceres, which is also classified as a dwarf planet.

Dawn is expected to arrive at Ceres in February 2015.

You can follow Space.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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