Pitted Terrain on Vesta and Implications for the Presence of Volatiles

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Science  12 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6104, pp. 246-249
DOI: 10.1126/science.1225374

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Vesta to the Core

Vesta is one of the largest bodies in the main asteroid belt. Unlike most other asteroids, which are fragments of once larger bodies, Vesta is thought to have survived as a protoplanet since its formation at the beginning of the solar system (see the Perspective by Binzel, published online 20 September). Based on data obtained with the Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector aboard the Dawn spacecraft, Prettyman et al. (p. 242, published online 20 September) show that Vesta's reputed volatile-poor regolith contains substantial amounts of hydrogen delivered by carbonaceous chondrite impactors. Observations of pitted terrain on Vesta obtained by Dawn's Framing Camera and analyzed by Denevi et al. (p. 246, published online 20 September), provide evidence for degassing of volatiles and hence the presence of hydrated materials. Finally, paleomagnetic studies by Fu et al. (p. 238) on a meteorite originating from Vesta suggest that magnetic fields existed on the surface of the asteroid 3.7 billion years ago, supporting the past existence of a magnetic core dynamo.


We investigated the origin of unusual pitted terrain on asteroid Vesta, revealed in images from the Dawn spacecraft. Pitted terrain is characterized by irregular rimless depressions found in and around several impact craters, with a distinct morphology not observed on other airless bodies. Similar terrain is associated with numerous martian craters, where pits are thought to form through degassing of volatile-bearing material heated by the impact. Pitted terrain on Vesta may have formed in a similar manner, which indicates that portions of the surface contain a relatively large volatile component. Exogenic materials, such as water-rich carbonaceous chondrites, may be the source of volatiles, suggesting that impactor materials are preserved locally in relatively high abundance on Vesta and that impactor composition has played an important role in shaping the asteroid’s geology.

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