A visit by NASA's Dawn spacecraft to the asteroid Vesta revealed hydrated (i.e. water containing) minerals. It's a good sign for the asteroid mining crowd who want to find and process water for life support and fuel depots.
Two papers based on observations from Dawn's low-orbit mapping pass of Vesta show volatile materials have covered the asteroid's surface in a broad swath around its equator. The volatiles were released from minerals likely containing water, with pothole-like features marking some of the asteroid's surface where volatiles boiled off.
One instrument on the NASA spacecraft, the gamma ray and neutron detector GRaND), found signatures of hydrogen, likely in the form of hydroxyl or water bound to minerals in Vesta's surface.
"The source of the hydrogen within Vesta's surface appears to be hydrated minerals delivered by carbon-rich space rocks that collided with Vesta at speeds slow enough to preserve their volatile content," said Thomas Prettyman, GRanD's lead scientist.
Scientists thought it might be possible for water ice to survive near the surface around the asteroid's poles, but unlike Earth's moon, Vesta has no permanently shadowed regions where ice might survive. The strongest signature for hydrogen came from regions near the equator, where water ice is not stable.
In some cases, space rocks crashed into the water deposits at high speed. The heat of collision converted the hydrogen in the minerals into water, which evaporated. Escaping water left holes as much as six-tenths of a mile wide and as deep as 700 feet.
Water is one of the key substances space explorers want to find. Water can be used for radiation shielding and drinking and broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel and life support. Private firm Planetary Resources, launched earlier this year, has set out a long-term goal to mine NEOs (Near Earth Objects) with robots. Water would provide unmanned and manned spacecraft with on-site fuel to go places in the solar system, such as to get asteroids containing rare metals.
Indications of water-containing minerals on Vesta would suggest there might be significant opportunities for similar finds in the many thousands of asteroids drifting near planet Earth. Mining the objects for water would lead to on-orbit supply depots for deep space exploration without having to ship water, oxygen, and hydrogen from Earth at much greater expense.
Having finished its investigations at Vestra, Dawn is now on its way to visit the dwarf planet Ceres. The spacecraft was launched on September 27, 2007 and arrived at Vesta July 2011. It will arrive at Ceres on February 2015 and conduct several months of observations.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman