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Asimov’s Vesta and Ours

With the Dawn spacecraft on its approach to Vesta, I’ve been scouting around for science fiction that involves this interesting asteroid. The one story that stands out is famous for its author more than its quality. It’s “Marooned Off Vesta,” which turns out to be Isaac Asimov’s first published story. John Campbell rejected it at Astounding Science Fiction, so it was left to Amazing Stories’ Ray Palmer to publish the Good Doctor’s first, written at the age of 18. “Marooned Off Vesta” appeared in Amazing’s issue of March 1939 and would have faded into obscurity if its author hadn’t gone on to his spectacular career in fiction and non-fiction.

The era when Asimov didn’t make the cover of a magazine he was writing for didn’t last for long. I don’t particularly recommend you hunt this story down, although it appears (for sentimental reasons, I suppose) in 1973’s The Best of Isaac Asimov. Here a trio of space travelers in trouble look out at the surface of Vesta from their crippled craft. The dialogue positively clanks:

Brandon stared bitterly at the globe that filled almost the entire porthole, so Moore continued, “Watching Vesta won’t do you any good either.”

Mike Shea lumbered up to the porthole. “We’d be safe if we were only down there on Vesta. There’re people there. How far away are we?”

“Not more than three or four hundred miles judging from its apparent size,” answered Moore. “You must remember that it is only two hundred miles in diameter.”

“Three hundred miles from salvation,’~ murmured Brandon, “and we might as well be a million. If there were only a way to get ourselves out of the orbit this rotten fragment adopted. You know, manage to give ourselves a push so as to start falling. There’d be no danger of crashing if we did, because that midget hasn’t got enough gravity to crush a cream puff.”

Suffice it to say that “Marooned Off Vesta” is a bit of a slog. Nonetheless, the problem — how to get their shattered vehicle to safety using the limited supplies aboard the ship, is the heart of a tale whose problem solving and analysis of the physics involved reminds me of countless, more sophisticated works by a mature Asimov.

The embedded video below takes us to the post-Asimovian present. We can imagine Asimov’s crew looking out of their porthole at something vaguely like this. The video is actually a looping set of 20 images from Dawn taken for navigation purposes on June 1. One pixel here corresponds to 45 kilometers on the asteroid’s surface — the resolution approaches our best Hubble images of Vesta. Note the dark feature, about 100 kilometers in diameter, near the asteroid’s equator. It will be thrilling to see things like this resolve as Dawn draws ever closer to its rendezvous.

Dawn’s other target is Ceres, which it will travel to after completing its Vesta mission in 2012. Unlike Vesta, Ceres has a robust history in science fiction, from early tales like Garrett Serviss’ Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898) through Larry Niven’s Known Space stories and novels like Joe Haldeman’s Buying Time (1989) and Bob Shaw’s The Ceres Solution (1981). The two asteroids could not be more different. Vesta has a differentiated structure, perhaps built around once radioactive materials in its core. We have much to learn about the place, but current thinking is that a layer of frozen lava covers deeper layers of rock and an iron/nickel core. The Vestoids, asteroids with similar orbital properties to Vesta, may have been created in the same impact that created a huge crater on Vesta’s south side, an event that also produced meteorites whose mineralogical composition leads researchers to associate them with Vesta.

Ceres, on the other hand, reminds us how much variety exists in the asteroid belt (a fact that Kevin Walsh offers an interesting hypothesis about in his current work on planetary migration). Ceres is larger than Vesta and almost spherical, with a density low enough to make it unlikely to have a metallic core. It’s now believed that Ceres is a cold body that never experienced internal heating. Frozen and perhaps liquid water — conceivably in copious amounts — may lurk below its surface, and there are some indications of frozen polar caps that evaporate in summer. The two asteroids are survivors of the planet-formation process, frozen in their development for 4.5 billion years. Dawn will be giving us a priceless look at the Solar System’s earliest era.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tobias Holbrook June 14, 2011, 15:41

    Does anyone know what they’re planning on doing with the data from Dawn? Will it be available to anyone, or are they going to hoard it for themselves?

  • Adam June 14, 2011, 17:11

    Hi Paul
    Ceres will be quite amazing to finally see up close, though AFAIK it’s quite possibly differentiated, at least into silicate and ices, with some kind of lava/mud mixed in with the ice. As the transient frost caps indicate, water isn’t stable in the long term exposed to the vacuum even when frozen at Ceres’ ambient temperature.
    Vesta, well what can we say so close to ever higher resolution images.

  • Dave Moore June 14, 2011, 21:25

    Refering back to Kevin Walsh’s paper accounting for a small Mars, I came across this interesting article on the Scientific American website

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=what-would-happen-if-earth-and-mars-2011-06-09&WT.mc_id=SA_CAT_physics_20110610&sc=emailfriend

    Renu Malhotra, planetary physicist from the University of Arizona was asked what would happen if Earth and Mars were swapped. She didn’t think much would happen but decided to run a simulation to find out. To her surprise, she found that the inner solar system becomes unstable. As you can see from the graphs, both Mars’s and Mercury’s orbit cross Venus’s.

  • Christopher L. Bennett June 15, 2011, 11:07

    Thought you might like to know that the body of SF literature about Vesta will be increasing soon, though not for a year or so. I’ve recently sold my first original novel, ONLY SUPERHUMAN, to Tor Books. It’s set in a High Frontier-style Asteroid Belt civilization, and its featured space habitats orbit several of the major Belt objects including Ceres and Vesta. Vesta isn’t heavily featured, but if Dawn reveals anything shocking about it, hopefully it won’t be too late for me to work it into the copyedits, since the book won’t be published until sometime next year. Naturally I’m following the Dawn mission with considerable interest.

    And following the preference of the Dawn team, I do refer to Vesta as a protoplanet in the text.

  • coolstar June 15, 2011, 11:20

    I will have to disagree with your opinion on the merits of “Marooned Off Vesta”; personally, I’ve always found it a quite charming story. The fact it was rejected once by an editor has no value as to its worth as lots and lots of good stories and novels have been rejected, some multiple times (a work by J.K. Rowling comes immediately to mind). The passage you quoted is actually just pretty standard Asimov; no one reads Asimov for sparkling dialogue or depth of characterization.

  • Paul Gilster June 15, 2011, 13:12

    coolstar, I agree that Asimov’s dialogue was never a strong point.

    And Christopher Bennett, congratulations indeed! I’ll look forward to your new novel with great anticipation. A sale to Tor is a major event.