NASA's Dawn gazes at Ceres' sunlit north pole

Ceres comes into sharper focus as the Dawn mission settles into an up-close study of the dwarf planet's craters and mysterious bright spots.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser

Ceres north pole
Ceres' north pole shines in the sunlight. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

NASA's intrepid Dawn mission set a record on March 6 when it became the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet. Space watchers followed Dawn's approach through a series of images ranging from a far-off fuzzy dot to the latest view, an animation showing Ceres' north pole dramatically lit up by the sun.

NASA created the animation with images captured on April 10, with Dawn at a distance of 21,000 miles from Ceres. Dawn spent over a month on the dwarf planet's dark side before taking these images. The animated result shows the sun highlighting the pole's crater-marked surface.

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

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Dawn's arrival at Ceres came after a fascinating stint studying the Arizona-size asteroid Vesta. Dawn launched in September 2007 with the objective of delving into the earliest history of our solar system by studying the largest objects (dwarf planet Ceres and asteroid Vesta) in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA says we can look forward to new images at increasingly better resolutions. As more data is collected, scientists also hope to explain the mysterious bright spots visible on Ceres' surface. The spots have led to a considerable amount of conjecture, with possible explanations ranging from patches of exposed ice to plumes of water vapor.

Animated look at Ceres' north pole. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA