the first column in our new series for Topman Generation Magazine is now online, alongside articles about fashion photographers like Katja Meyer and Kate Cox and designers Shaun Samson and James Long. you can read it here or there
Right now, somewhere out beyond the orbit of Mars, millions of pieces of icy rock are floating in the dark, silent void of space. And for the first time, a tiny little spacecraft from Planet Earth is among them.
Because of the way the planets rotate and occasionally align (think Mayan prophesies/2012/druids chanting at Stonehenge etc) the rocky debris orbiting between Mars and Jupiter never really got together to make a planet. Instead, it’s still just a vast but diffuse field of rocks: the asteroid belt. Other probes have passed by and taken pictures on their way to the outer planets, and we’ve studied other asteroids that drift closer to earth, but NASA’s unmanned DAWN probe will be the first to actually stop and explore the neighbourhood in detail.
A bunch of cold, dark rocks floating around the sun might sound boring, but imagine flying around out there. The smallest asteroids are like grains of sand, while others range from small pebbles to massive boulders. Some are icy like comets, while others could be chock full of valuable metals that we might one day mine and bring back to earth. Some tumble end over end while others rotate in twisting 360s, occasionally crashing into each other. At the other extreme, some are big enough to have their own miniature moons rotating around them. And then there are the four giants – Vesta, Pallas, Hygiea and Ceres – which are more like small worlds.
This summer, DAWN arrived at Vesta – the second-largest asteroid we know of – and began snapping away with its digital cameras. As the rocky, circular world got closer and closer, mission scientists were able to produce amazing 3D images of its surface for the first time, and are now generating topographical maps of its peaks and valleys. It’s an impressive landscape, with one mountain rising thirteen miles above the surface – nearly three times as high as Mount Everest. The little probe will continue to orbit and map Vesta for another year, then head off in search of bigger game: the dwarf planet/asteroid Ceres.
Understanding more about how the asteroid belt behaves is important to our long-term survival here on earth, and DAWN is really just the beginning. NASA’s next robotic mission to the asteroid belt is due to launch in 2016 and bring back a piece of asteroid 1999 RQ36, which should tell us more about how the solar system formed.
Closer to home, President Obama has outlined plans to send astronauts to land on a near-earth asteroid, a mission currently being simulated by NASA at an underwater lab off the coast of Florida. And while such a mission wouldn’t blast off until the 2020s at the earliest, we won’t have to wait that long to see a space rock up close. On November 8, asteroid 2005 YU55 will pass within 202,000 miles of earth – closer than our own moon.
Check out the rest of Topman Generation Magazine here