Vesta Likely Cold and Dark Enough for Ice

Though generally thought to be quite dry, roughly half of the giant asteroid Vesta is expected to be so cold and to receive so little sunlight that water ice could have survived there for billions of years, according to the first published models of Vesta's average global temperatures and illumination by the sun.

"Near the north and south poles, the conditions appear to be favorable for water ice to exist beneath the surface," says Timothy Stubbs of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Stubbs and Yongli Wang of the Goddard Planetary Heliophysics Institute at the University of Maryland published the models in the January 2012 issue of the journal Icarus. The models are based on information from telescopes including NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

Vesta, the second-most massive object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, probably does not have any significant permanently shadowed craters where water ice could stay frozen on the surface all the time, not even in the roughly 300-mile-diameter (480-kilometer-diameter) crater near the south pole, the authors note. The asteroid isn't a good candidate for permanent shadowing because it is tilted on its axis at about 27 degrees, which is even greater than Earth's tilt of roughly 23 degrees. In contrast, the moon, which does have permanently shadowed craters, is tilted at only about 1.5 degrees. As a result of its large tilt, Vesta has seasons, and every part of the surface is expected to see the sun at some point during Vesta's year.

The presence or absence of water ice on Vesta tells scientists something about the tiny world's formation and evolution, its history of bombardment by comets and other objects, and its interaction with the space environment. Because similar processes are common to many other planetary bodies, including the moon, Mercury and other asteroids, learning more about these processes has fundamental implications for our understanding of the solar system as a whole. This kind of water ice is also potentially valuable as a resource for further exploration of the solar system.

Though temperatures on Vesta fluctuate during the year, the model predicts that the average annual temperature near Vesta's north and south poles is less than roughly minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit (145 kelvins). That is the critical average temperature below which water ice is thought to be able to survive in the top 10 feet or so (few meters) of the soil, which is called regolith.


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