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NASA Dawn spacecraft zooms in on Ceres' crazy crater

Ceres' famous bright spots are ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille.

This mosaic shows a prominent mound on the western side of Cerealia Facula.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

When NASA's Dawn spacecraft approached dwarf planet Ceres in 2015, everyone from astronomers to UFO enthusiasts got excited about some strange bright spots seen in the craft's images. Dawn is now closer than ever to Occator Crater, the source of some of those intriguing spots, and NASA has released a fresh look at what's inside.

Dawn reached its newest and lowest orbit around Ceres on June 6. It skimmed within just 22 miles (35 kilometers) of the surface and zoomed in on a large deposit near the crater's center named Cerealia Facula.

Dawn caught this view of a landslide on the crater rim on June 16.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The bright deposits are made of sodium carbonate and are the largest observed outside of Earth. Scientists are wondering how they got there, suggesting they are "either from a shallow, sub-surface reservoir of mineral-laden water, or from a deeper source of brines (liquid water enriched in salts) percolating upward through fractures."

The Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research also released an image showing landslide activity on the northern rim of Occator Crater. NASA says Cere's landslides resemble ones seen on Earth.

"There are clear signs that material has been recently moving down the slopes; some of it remains stuck halfway," the institute notes.

NASA hopes data and close-up images collected by Dawn in its new orbit will shed some light on the fascinating formations.

Dawn's chief engineer Marc Rayman of NASA waxed poetic about the spacecraft's latest achievements, saying, "Dawn is like a master artist, adding rich details to the otherworldly beauty in its intimate portrait of Ceres."