You may know that NASA's Dawn spacecraft successfully entered orbit around the asteroid Vesta earlier this month, on July 16th. It began taking photographs and other data -- a recent photo of the asteroid is shown above. Dawn, which launched in September, 2007, is scheduled to remain in orbit around Vesta for a year, departing in July of 2012, after which it will head to the asteroid Ceres, with a scheduled arrival in February, 2015.

Vesta is formally designated as "4 Vesta," since it was the fourth object in the asteroid belt to be successfully identified, on March 29, 1807. The previous three bodies identified were Ceres (or "1 Ceres"), Pallas ("2 Pallas"), and Juno ("3 Juno"). In spite of being number four, Vesta is the second most-massive object known in the asteroid belt, behind Ceres. It is actually slightly smaller in size than Pallas, but about 20% more massive. The somewhat unusual mass characteristics of asteroids is an important clue to their origin, as we will see.

Current literature often designates Vesta a "protoplanet," believing that it is a more "evolved" object than a simple asteroid -- perhaps a remnant of an early forming planet that was interrupted in its development by the intrusive formation of massive Jupiter. In fact, the NASA webpage for the Dawn spacecraft (so-called, evidently, because it was intended to study the "dawn" of the planets when it visited the protoplanets of Ceres and Vesta) states that:
During the earliest epochs of our solar system, the materials in the solar nebula varied with their distance from the sun. As this distance increased, the temperature dropped, with terrestrial bodies forming closer to the sun, and icy bodies forming farther away.

The asteroid Vesta and the recently categorized dwarf planet Ceres have been selected because, while both speak to conditions and processes early in the formation of the solar system, they developed into two different kinds of bodies. Vesta is a dry, differentiated object with a surface that shows signs of resurfacing. It resembles the rocky bodies of the inner solar system, including Earth. Ceres, by contrast, has a primitive surface containing water-bearing minerals, and may possess a weak atmosphere. It appears to have many similarities to the large icy moons of the outer solar system.

By studying both these two distinct bodies with the same complement of instruments on the same spacecraft, the Dawn mission hopes to compare the different evolutionary path each took as well as create a picture of the early solar system overall. Data returned from the Dawn spacecraft could provide opportunities for significant breakthroughs in our knowledge of how the solar system formed.
However, the idea that Ceres and Vesta formed before the rest of the planets, and that they represent primitive "protoplanets" that were arrested in their development before they could become planets, has some problems. In fact, the conventional explanation for the entire asteroid belt is fraught with difficulties from the perspective of physics. Just like the theories for the origin of comets and for numerous other phenomena in the solar system and on earth, the conventional theories have numerous flaws, while the hydroplate theory of Dr. Walt Brown provides very satisfactory explanations which are in line with the principles of physics.

Dr. Brown devotes an entire section of his book to the origin of asteroids, giving solid arguments that refute the conventional explanations, and which demonstrate that asteroids and comets are extremely similar both in their composition and origins.

In that section, he points out that there are big problems with both the idea that asteroids are the remnants of an exploded planet and the theory that they are prototype planets (or "failed planets"). Some of the powerful evidence against these two explanations includes:
  • The fact that orbiting rocks do not come together to form composite bodies without special circumstances, which argues against the failed planet hypothesis. These unique conditions would have been present if the rocks were initially ejected from earth, in the presence of water, which would have led to the coagulation of some composite bodies made up of smaller rocks held together both by gravity but also by ice, which is what we find in the larger asteroids. The low density of many asteroids is supporting evidence for this explanation.
  • The discovery by spacecraft since Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 that microparticles thought to have come from asteroids and collisions with asteroids were much more prevalent close to earth than close to the asteroid belt, indicating that asteroids were probably not the source of these microparticles but rather earth itself at some point in the past.
  • The fact that some larger asteroids, including Ceres, have actually captured and retained smaller asteroids as "moons." Some even have two such moons. Because of their small size and the principles of physics, Dr. Brown explains that the only way this could happen would be if the asteroids and their moons were ejected with similar velocities and similar trajectories -- it would not be expected to take place in either the "failed planet (protoplanet)" or the "exploded planet" scenarios. In fact, when observations of such moons paired with asteroids were first described, many astronomers scoffed because they knew that their models did not admit such a possibility (the fact of such moons is now impossible to deny).
  • The "peanut shape" of several asteroids indicates that they are composed of smaller bodies joined together. However, for such a shape to be formed in outer space, the smaller bodies had to come together at a relatively slow velocity, probably buffered by the presence of gaseous water. Such conditions would be extremely difficult to explain under the conventional "failed planet" scenario or the "exploded planet" scenario, but would fit the model of the hydroplate theory perfectly.
  • The minerals of the asteroids, including the prevalence of iron and nickel in most asteroids (including Vesta) is difficult to explain using conventional theories, but accords perfectly with the hydroplate theory, as Dr. Brown explains. The main problem is that the geology of asteroids including Vesta indicates that they were heated successively to very high temperatures many times, which is difficult to explain in the cold reaches of space where the asteroids are found today and where the conventional theories (especially the "protoplanet" explanation) argue that they have been since before the formation of the earth. However, Dr. Brown's theory argues that the asteroids were on earth, deep beneath the surface, and subject to conditions that would create the kind of intense heating and mineral composition that we find in the asteroids before they were ejected into space, which lines up with known rules of physics and geology just as the conventional explanations do not.
  • Meteorites, which conventional theories say must have come from asteroids (including Vesta -- see the discussion in this Wikipedia article) often contain remanence or remanent magnetism. Dr. Brown explains that this remanent magnetism is consistent with an origin on a large, magnetized body such as earth, but not consistent with origin on asteroids, even origins on Vesta. Because the hydroplate theory argues that asteroids (including Vesta) are composite bodies, they do not have a single strong magnetic field, but are instead the compound jumble of magnetic fields from their component rocks, which generally cancel one another out and leave an overall lack of remanent magnetic readings.
  • The spin of most asteroids is consistent with rocks ejected from the earth, and in fact consistent with the spin direction of earth itself.
  • Because larger asteroids are held together with a "weak glue" of ice (which originated in the water blasted into space along with the rocks during the violent explosion that initiated the global flood event), impacts from other space rocks sometimes cause this water to melt and to begin to vent into the vacuum of space. When this happens, asteroids resemble comets: in fact, comets and asteroids are pretty much the same animal, except that asteroids have spent most of their existence in closer orbits to the sun and most of them have lost all of their ice -- with some of the larger ones retaining icy mantles below the surface which are still subject to being released later on by imacts. Most comets, on the other hand, have wider orbits and still retain ice, which is still venting.
  • The hydroplate theory argues for a fairly recent origin for both asteroids and comets. Just as there are sound principles of physics to argue that comets could not have survived in their present numbers for billions of years, there are also sound reasons to argue that asteroids probably have life spans below a million years (particularly those asteroids which have been found orbiting near the orbit of earth, such as 3753 Cruithne). Some of these are outlined in Dr. Brown's discussion of the origin of asteroids.
In spite of the fact that NASA webpages and the popular press present 4 Vesta as an object whose origin is well known and well understood, the fact is that it is very difficult to argue that it is either a protoplanet that never quite "evolved" into a planet, or a remnant of an exploded planet. The reasons above are elaborated upon more fully on the website of Dr. Brown.

On the other hand, there is every reason to believe that asteroids, including Vesta, provide more powerful evidence for the hydroplate theory and a catastrophic flood on earth within the past 10,000 or so years. Such an event, if it took place, would also shed light on the mysterious capabilities of the civilzations that bequeathed their knowledge to the most ancient builders of the Giza Pyramids, Stonehenge, and to the authors of myths which were recorded in extreme antiquity. This connection is the subject of the Mathisen Corollary book, and this blog.