The NASA spacecraft Dawn entered the asteroid Vesta’s orbit on 16 July 2011. The brightest asteroid visible from earth, Vesta is the second largest object in the asteroid belt although once her neighbour Pallas is explored, this ranking may change.
Vesta was discovered by Heinrich Willhelm Olbers on 29 March 1807. Just a few years earlier, Olbers had also discovered Pallas. “Coincidentally,” as astronomers like to say, Pallas, Ceres and Vesta were discovered in the constellation of Virgo and along with Juno, were all discovered within a decade. As the word “asteroid” had not yet been invented, these celestial objects were referred to as planets in their own right in the literature of that time.
Because Olbers had already named Pallas, he bequeathed the honour of naming the newly discovered object to Carl Freidrich Gauss who promptly named the planet after the Roman goddess of hearth and home. For several years, she was known as 4 Vesta because she was the fourth object discovered in what we now know as the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Mythologically, Vesta was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, the last child born before her brother Zeus embarked on his rebellious streak and disembowelled his father in order to free his siblings from his father’s stomach. Vesta refused to marry and chose instead to remain a virgin.
Vesta’s importance was so great that she was seen as a symbol of earth, the place that made life possible. According to the poet Ovid: "Vesta is the Earth itself, both have the perennial fire, the Earth and the sacred Fire show their see."
To the Greeks, fire was sacred and every city had a hearth dedicated to the goddess Vesta. If a Greek was to visit a foreign land, he or she would bring some of the embers of their home fire with them. When women married, they took some of the embers of their mother’s fire to their new home.
Although the Greeks called the women who kept the fires “virgins” it is clear they participated in sexual rituals and so were not virgins in our sense of the word. They were unmarried and belonged to no man and so were free to spread the fire of passion.
To an extent, the Romans had a similar view—with a crucial difference. They too kept a sacred fire and appointed six beautiful and noble maidens to serve as vestal virgins whose duties were simply to remain virgins—in our sense of the word—until they had served thirty years of keeping the home fires burning. If the fire went out, they were whipped. If they lost their virginity, they were entombed alive. After they served their thirty years, they were free to marry but many simply chose to enjoy the luxury of being one the most respected women in the city—and one of the few women who could actually own property.
Marie Stopes, one of Britiain’s greatest campaigners for women’s rights and a pioneer in the field of birth control was born with Vesta conjunct her North Node in Capricorn. She had written a sex manual entitled “Married Love” which she claimed to have written when she was still a virgin. She opened the UK’s first family planning clinic on 17 March 1921 in London, just as Vesta in Pisces was in opposition to Saturn in Virgo. Stopes, in her book, Radiant Motherhood, argued in favour of the eugenics programme which called for the sterilisation of anyone unfit for parenthood.
Queen Elizabeth I, known as “The Virgin Queen” had no children and although it might be disputed that she was an actual virgin, used her status as a virgin to her political advantageHer reputation as a virgin inspired a cult of virginity and exalted her to a goddess-like status. She was born with Vesta in Gemini opposing Jupiter in Sagittarius.
Britney Spears was a pop star who capitalised on her status as a virgin early in her career. She was born with Vesta conjunct her natal Uranus in Sagittarius.
Whilst it’s always nice to find astrology signatures that match the Vesta theme, it is even more satisfying when the scientists sing from the same cosmic hymnbook. NASA scientists have recently discovered that Vesta shares crucial similarities to earth.
Dawn’s data shows that roughly half of Vesta is expected to be so cold and to receive so little sunlight that water ice could have survived there for billions of years. The data collected from Dawn is seen as crucial to understanding how our solar system was formed. Scientists have now surmised that due to the tilt of the asteroid on its axis—similar to the earth’s— Vesta has variable seasons just like the earth.
"On average, it's colder at Vesta's poles than near its equator, so in that sense, they are good places to sustain water ice," says Timothy Stubbs of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "But they also see sunlight for long periods of time during the summer seasons, which isn't so good for sustaining ice. So if water ice exists in those regions, it may be buried beneath a relatively deep layer of dry regolith."
Although the asteroid Vesta is extremely unlikely to be able to sustain life, it is amazing that it has patterns on its surface that are so familiar to us earth dwellers. The Dawn cameras have captured what appears to be the shape of a snowman on its surface: