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NASA’s Dawn probe closes in on giant asteroid

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WASHINGTON (AFP) – The Dawn space probe is closing in on its first target, the massive asteroid Vesta, almost four years after its journey began in September 2007, NASA said Tuesday.

Dawn is on a long-haul mission to unlock the secrets of the solar system by studying the two largest asteroids orbiting the sun, Vesta and Ceres — a trip that will carry it three billion miles by the time it is over.

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It will be about three more months before the spacecraft gets close enough to begin orbiting the huge proto-planet, but NASA said it is eager to get to work.

“We feel a little like Columbus approaching the shores of the New World,” said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, based at the University of California in Los Angeles.

“The Dawn team can’t wait to start mapping this Terra Incognita.”

After orbiting Vesta for about a year, the unmanned Dawn spacecraft will then carry on to Ceres, an even larger asteroid, in 2015, NASA said.

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The deep-space probe is carrying photographic and science instruments to study the surface of the asteroids and analyze their gravitational pull.

Dawn’s mission is to learn about the first moments of the solar system’s creation 4.6 billion years ago by gathering information about Ceres and Vesta, including what kinds of elements form such terrestrial planets, among them Earth, Mars and Mercury.

It also plans to explain why and how Vesta and Ceres followed a different evolutionary and formative path, particularly the role that water may have played in their development.

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Ceres, discovered in 1801, has a spherical shape and a diameter of about 960 kilometers (596 miles). Scientists believe it may have a layer of thick ice under its crust, covering a rocky core.

Ceres was classified in 2006 as a “dwarf planet,” according to a new definition by astronomers to describe asteroids in the solar system.

The decision by the International Astronomical Union was the result of a debate about the status of Pluto, which is now classified as a dwarf planet along with Ceres and another celestial body, Eris.

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Vesta, discovered in 1807, is smaller than Ceres but is the third largest asteroid in the solar system. With a diameter of 520 kilometers (323 miles), Vesta has a rocky surface without a trace of water and a hot interior.

Scientists are especially interested in the enormous crater on the south pole of Vesta, 460 kilometers wide and 13 kilometers deep, which is believed to be the result of a major collision.

After having canceled the Dawn project previously, NASA revived the mission in 2006 after an investment of 449 million dollars.

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“After more than three and a half years of interplanetary travel, we are finally closing in on our first destination,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“We’re not there yet, but Dawn will soon bring into focus an entire world that has been, for most of the two centuries scientists have been studying it, little more than a pinpoint of light.”


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WATCH: Lewandowski’s lawyer freaks out, tries to block Congress from asking any further questions

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During the House Judiciary Committee testimony of President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski about the Russia investigation, Lewandowski's attorney frantically crashed the witness table and demanded that Congress stop asking questions of his client.

"Mister Chairman, as you know I am counsel for Mr. Lewandowski—" began the attorney.

"You are not a witness and you should not be seated at that table," cut in House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) sharply.

"I understand that," said Lewandowski's attorney. "I will leave after I register a formal protest based upon the debate that I heard. These seem to be unauthorized questions and I know you choose your words carefully—"

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Lewandowski’s testimony will let Democrats build Nixon-like articles of impeachment: Ex-prosecutor

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As President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski combatively testified before the House Judiciary Committee, he admitted that Trump asked him to communicate to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation must be shut down. Aside from that revelation, most of the testimony was unproductive, with Lewandowski lashing out at members of Congress and running interference for the president.

But as former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti wrote on Twitter, these outbursts — and the fact that Trump sanctioned the way that Lewandowski behaved in the hearing — could be the basis for Democrats to write up articles of impeachment against Trump similar to those drafted against Richard Nixon in 1974:

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Putin aims a weaponized barb at Trump over Saudi attack – and hits the mark

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Russian President Vladimir Putin joked this week about selling defense systems to Riyadh following weekend attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The gag was aimed at US President Donald Trump and it hit the mark with the precision of a guided weapon.

It was a masterful piece of trolling by the czar of trolls – a snide, disparaging jibe with an element of truth twisted into absurdity for maximum effect and laughs. At a joint press conference with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts in Ankara on Monday, Putin cast his bait into the volatile Persian Gulf region just days after devastating attacks on Saudi oil facilities exposed the limits of the Gulf kingdom’s expensive defense systems.

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