Right now NASA's Dawn spacecraft is 114 million miles from Earth, orbiting thousands of miles above the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta. And Dawn's been taking pictures.
Shown here is the first full frame image snapped by Dawn's onboard framing camera. The photo reveals a set of three craters on Vesta's northern hemisphere that has been informally nicknamed "Snowman" by the camera's team members (you can see the three craters on the left side of the image up top).
Vesta is the brightest asteroid of all the rocky main-belt bodies, and the second biggest, measuring an average of 330 miles in diameter. Vesta is so large that the 2006 draft proposal by the International Astronomical Union on the definition of a planet actually listed Vesta as a candidate.
"We have been calling Vesta the smallest terrestrial planet," said Chris Russell, Dawn's principal investigator at UCLA. "The latest imagery provides much justification for our expectations. They show that a variety of processes were once at work on the surface of Vesta and provide extensive evidence for Vesta's planetary aspirations."
Dawn will continue to orbit Vesta for a year before setting course for Ceres, the largest of the main belt asteroids.
Top Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA