Ancient landslides shaped the magnificent cliffs of Vesta

Despite being only about 330 miles across, the asteroid Vesta features some of the biggest cliffs in the entire solar system. This new image from NASA's Dawn probe gives us one of the most striking looks yet at Vesta's cliffs.

The cliff seen at the center of the image is about twelve miles high. That's more than twice the height of Mount Everest, but these cliffs are just on the second largest object in the solar system, not Earth. On our planet, a proportionally large cliff would be nearly 300 miles high. The exact origins of these cliffs aren't known for certain, but a NASA astronomer explains one dramatic possibility:

Pictured above near the image center is a very deep cliff running about 20 kilometers from top to bottom. The image was taken by the robotic Dawn spacecraft that began orbiting the 500-kilometer space rock earlier this year. The topography of the scarp and its surroundings indicates that huge landslides may have occurred down this slope. The scarp's origin remains unknown, but parts of the cliff face itself must be quite old as several craters have appeared in it since it was created.

This image was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft as part of its high altitude mapping survey of the asteroid, and the next step for the probe will be to spiral down to a lower orbit to measure Vesta's gravitational field. After that, Dawn will begin its long journey towards the largest object in the asteroid belt, not to mention its only dwarf planet, Ceres.