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NASA's Dawn mission seeks Ceres' secrets (pictures)

Dwarf planet Ceres is NASA's latest object of fascination, sporting mysterious bright spots and a surface marked with endless craters.

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Amanda Kooser
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1 of 9 NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Mottled color map of Ceres

Tucked far away in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter sits the dwarf planet Ceres. It's the largest object in the belt and it's currently under investigation by NASA's Dawn spacecraft.

NASA released a color map of Ceres' surface highlighting its craters and hinting at an active past.

"This dwarf planet was not just an inert rock throughout its history. It was active, with processes that resulted in different materials in different regions. We are beginning to capture that diversity in our color images," said Chris Russell, Dawn mission principal investigator.

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2 of 9 NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres in half shadow

NASA's Dawn mission took these dramatic images of dwarf planet Ceres in half shadow from a distance of 25,000 miles in February 2015. This took place just a couple of weeks before Dawn reached Ceres in early March and became the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet.

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Ceres' north pole lit up

Dawn spent over a month in orbit on the dark side of Ceres, but captured this sunlit look at the dwarf planet's north pole on April 10, 2015. It is the highest-resolution image taken of Ceres to date and was picked up at a distance of about 21,000 miles.

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4 of 9 NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Strange bright spots come into view

Dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is home to a space mystery. Noticeable bright spots dot the object's surface and scientists have yet to come up with an explanation for them. Possible explanations include salt flats, exposed ice or water vapor.

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5 of 9 NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres with a series of craters

Ceres' mysterious bright spots are visible in this flattened mosaic image of the dwarf planet's surface. A variety of craters cover Ceres. NASA's Dawn mission is in orbit, capturing new images and data to help scientists peek into the early history of the solar system.

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6 of 9 NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF

Ceres' bright spots shine

The mystery of the strange bright spots on Ceres may soon be solved as Dawn spends more close-up time in orbit around the dwarf planet. These images, taken with Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, show the spots in question. The images on the left are close to what the human eye would see. The orange images are taken in thermal infrared. Brighter colors correlate to higher temperatures.

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Dawn and Vesta by size

Before reaching dwarf planet Ceres, the Dawn spacecraft stopped over at the large asteroid Vesta for an intensive round of study and data collection. This image shows the difference in size between the two objects. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, but Vesta is still pretty big, clocking in at around the size of the state of Arizona.

Scientists will compare information collected between the two asteroid belt denizens to learn about the early times of our solar system.

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Artist's view of Dawn's arrival

The Dawn spacecraft doesn't have space paparazzi in tow photographing its every move, so it's up to artists on Earth to imagine what it would look like to watch as Dawn approached Ceres. This artist's concept shows Dawn nearing the dwarf planet.

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Ceres seen from far away

As a reminder of how far Dawn has traveled, here's a flashback image from mid-January 2015. At a distance of around 240,000 miles away, the image shows Ceres as a small, fuzzy dot. It still caused a lot of excitement for space fans following Dawn's adventures through the asteroid belt.

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