Of proto- [and exo-] planets. And falling satellites…

Nasa’s Dawn spacecraft remains in orbit around the 530km-wide proto-planet Vesta – the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt.  And they’ve released this cool video constructed from the images they’ve obtained so far. Via JPLnews

Here’s an image of the south pole of Vesta from a distance of about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers). [Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA]

And speaking of exo-planets, scientists using the orbiting Kepler observatory have identifed the first circumbinary planet, the first planet known to definitively orbit two stars – Kepler 16b. Video from NASAames

George Lucas’ opportune product placement in the Nasa reports was repeated in most of the coverage of the discovery.  But it offered the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones route to an interesting diversion.

Early human culture was more immensely aware of these realities than we are today. Neolithic people who aligned monuments according to the winter solstice or ancient Egyptians who built solar boats for Pharaohs to ascend to the heavens lived in constant admiration and dread of the one great light in the sky. What if the sun abandons us for ever? The Aztecs feared it too. Their response – human sacrifice – rivalled the terrors of nightfall in Asimov’s story.

Science and science fiction are apparently inseparable. And as Asimov’s great story of the psychology of light reveals, so are astronomy and art. In Raphael’s painting the Mond crucifixion, a personified sun and moon divide the sky between them. Two suns, or six, would not just mean a more crowded painting, but a totally different conception of life. We face the sun. To face two, we might need two heads. Thinking would be different. Perhaps we would see too much, and no longer open our eyes. Art owes much to our sun, and its regular disappearance.

Meanwhile, Nasa have revised the estimated time of arrival, on Earth, for the 5 tonne 20-year-old Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite that’s fallen out of orbit.  Previously expected in late September or early October 2011, they’ve narrowed it down to “Sept. 23, plus or minus a day”.  From the BBC report

A five tonne, 20-year-old satellite has fallen out of orbit and is expected to crash somewhere on Earth on or around 24 September, according to Nasa.

Nasa says the risk to life from the UARS – Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite – is just 1 in 3,200.

It could land anywhere between 57 degrees north and 57 degrees south of the equator – most of the populated world.

However, most of the satellite will break or burn up before reaching Earth.

Scientists have identified 26 separate pieces that could survive the fall through the earth’s atmosphere, and debris could rain across an area 400-500km (250-310 miles) wide.

So, ermm, let’s be careful out there…

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