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Asteroid Vesta and Dawn spacecraft get cozy

Asteroid Vesta: The Dawn spacecraft last month slipped into orbit around the 330-mile-wide rocky body with little fanfare and began beaming back incredible details of the pockmarked surface that resembles Earth's moon.

In this image released by NASA/JPL on Thursday July 28, shows an image of the dark side of Vesta asteroid captured by NASA'S Dawn spacecraft on July 23, 2011, and taken from a distance of about 3,200 miles away from the giant asteroid.

NASA/JPL/AP

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Scientists are busy poring over images of the massive asteroid Vesta, the first time it has been photographed up close.

The Dawn spacecraft last month slipped into orbit around the 330-mile-wide rocky body with little fanfare and began beaming back incredible details of the pockmarked surface that resembles Earth's moon.

Since entering orbit, Dawn has taken more than 500 images, while refining its path and inching ever closer to the surface to get a better view. The probe will officially start collecting science data next week once it is positioned 1,700 miles from the surface.

Dawn so far has imaged the entire sunlit side of Vesta. Last week, it passed over a part of the surface hidden in the shadows and saw distinct grooves.

Analyzing the surface "enables us to determine what has happened to Vesta over the eons," said the mission's chief scientist, Christopher Russell of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Currently some 117 million miles from Earth, Vesta is the second-most massive resident of the asteroid belt, a zone between Mars and Jupiter littered with hundreds of thousands of space rocks orbiting the sun. The belt formed some 4.5 billion years ago around the same time and under similar conditions as Earth and the inner planets.

It's thought that larger chunks such as Vesta could have coalesced into planets had they not been foiled by Jupiter's gravity. Despite being denied planethood, asteroids are of interest to researchers because they date back to the early solar system.

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