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NASA's Dawn zooms in on Ceres' towering conical mountain

A 4-mile-high mountain on dwarf planet Ceres comes into focus as the Dawn spacecraft scoots up close for its most detailed images yet.

This mountain is an impressively tall peak. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres is the dwarf planet in the asteroid belt that has given space fans a lot to talk about. A mysterious collection of bright spots and a pyramid-shaped mountain have kept scientists guessing as NASA's Dawn spacecraft flies in ever closer to uncover Ceres' secrets.

A new set of images gives us the closest look yet at what's happening on the surface. Dawn is currently in orbit at a distance of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers), putting it all up in Ceres' personal space.

Ceres' unusual conical mountain reaches 4 miles (6 kilometers) high. Compare that to Mount Everest at 5.5 miles high (about 8.8 kilometers). It would be quite a hike if a human ever landed on the dwarf planet and tried to climb to the top.

The fresh pictures show a well-defined perimeter and sharp slopes with bright streaks running down them. NASA originally described the mountain as "pyramid-shaped," which no doubt excited alien theorists hoping for evidence of unnatural structures on another world. However, closer inspection shows it to be mainly conical in shape.

"Dawn is performing flawlessly in this new orbit as it conducts its ambitious exploration. The spacecraft's view is now three times as sharp as in its previous mapping orbit, revealing exciting new details of this intriguing dwarf planet," Dawn chief engineer and mission director Marc Rayman said in a statement.

NASA launched Dawn in 2007, sending the spacecraft on its far-flung mission to study protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt. It spent over a year at Vesta and has been working on Ceres since March of this year.

Scientists are using Dawn's data to determine the minerals found on the dwarf planet and to study the geologic processes behind its surface features. The spacecraft's closeness is clearing up some mysteries, but Ceres remains an object of fascination.