If you love space, and you love getting behind the scenes access then, the AsteroidMappers project is perfect for you. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's spacecraft Dawn recently finished its orbit of the asteroid Vesta, and has delivered so much data that citizen scientists are being asked to help analyze what has been found.
The AsteriodMappers project is similar to the MoonMappers project housed online at CosmoQuest — home to various citizen scientists projects. Your mission will be to scour high resolution images of Vesta, identifying craters, boulders, rises and other landmarks to help create a map of the surface. A tutorial on how to begin your mission will walk you through how to contribute, and provide instructions along the way.
Dawn scientists were amazed at the amount of data they got from the spacecraft's orbit of Vesta. Scientists have not yet released all the images to the public so by working on the project you can truly say you got an insider's look. Scientists are calling it a surprisingly fascinating asteroid — unlike anything they've seen before — with huge impact basins, steep cliffs and other unusual color variations.
You are probably wondering what scientists hope to learn by mapping Vesta and its neighbor Ceres. They are hoping to characterize the conditions and activity in the solar system's earliest epoch as these "protoplanets" have remained intact since their formation.
Both Ceres and Vesta reside in the asteroid belt of our inner solar system, but each one is believed to have followed very different evolutionary paths due to the diversity of conditions and processes during the time the solar system was formed. That's important to scientists because it will in turn help us understand how these forces may have helped form our own planet.
Scientists already know that Vesta more closely resembles a small planet, or Earth's moon, than any other asteroid. Even with what data has been analyzed, they can conclusively link Vesta with meteorites that have fallen on Earth.
If it wasn't exciting enough helping to build a picture of what the conditions were like in the earliest stages of our solar system, there is also a bit of space history being made. Thanks to its revolutionary ion engine, the Dawn is now heading to over to Ceres; this will make the Dawn the first spacecraft to establish orbit around two distinct objects in space.
Just think — the orbit of Ceres will likely also collect a vast amount of data, so you could very well be getting in on the ground floor of an ongoing mapping project that could potentially unlock some secrets of our solar system.