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Weird spots on dwarf planet Ceres start to come into focus

Dawn has taken the closest pictures yet of the dwarf planet and started to illuminate the nature of its most glaring mystery.

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Ceres seen from Dawn at a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers). NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

As NASA's Dawn spacecraft gets a closer look at Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and at the mysterious reflective bright spots on its surface, we could be getting our first glimpse at evidence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life. Of course, it's seeming much, much more likely that it's really just a great potential ice skating rink for E.T.s that have yet to arrive.

The above animated GIF, released Monday, is composed of images that Dawn took from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,600 kilometers), the closest view yet of the dwarf planet. NASA says the images reveal that the bright spots inside a large crater appear to be composed of many smaller spots, none of which look to be lampposts for a secret alien base.

"Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice," Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, said in a release.

The exact nature of the intriguing spots should be revealed soon after Dawn enters its second mapping orbit on June 6. At that point, the craft will be observing Ceres from a height of just 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers), three times closer than the spot these images were gathered from. We should also get some new images as Dawn descends over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, be sure to check out our list of what might be behind the mystery on Ceres, and begin considering which sounds more appealing for a 22nd-century ice-fishing trip: Ceres or Saturn's icy-hot moon Enceladus?