Last July a NASA-sponsored spacecraft called “Dawn” slipped into orbit about the first of its planned destinations — the asteroid Vesta, which is the second-largest asteroid in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. About 5 percent of meteorites recovered after falling to earth are believed to have come from Vesta’s surface.
The Asteroid Belt is the name given to hundreds of thousands of asteroids, both large and small, that orbit the Sun in a band of space that stretches partway between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Were the asteroids once a planet in the past that broke apart?
“Quite the opposite,” said Christopher T. Russell, the principal investigator of the Dawn mission. “The material tried to accumulate into a planet but never was able do so.”
Russell coordinates and directs the science aspects of the Dawn mission as a part of his work as a professor in the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at UC Los Angeles. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena is in charge of the actual operation and flight of the space vehicle.
Elizabeth Palmer is a first-year graduate student who is working as a research assistant under Russell’s guidance at UC Los Angeles. She studied astronomy as an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, but ended up deciding that planetary science was a better fit for what she wanted to do. She was able to find a planetary science internship at JPL.