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Sharper images of dwarf-planet Ceres show strange bright spots

NASA's Dawn mission is closing in on Ceres, and it's looking ahead to getting a better gander at craters and mysterious spots on the the dwarf planet's surface.

Two images of Ceres
Two new views of Ceres as seen by the Dawn spacecraft. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

NASA's Dawn mission is all about clarifying our previously fuzzy knowledge of the largest objects in our solar system's asteroid belt. It launched back in the fall of 2007 with the goals of studying the protoplanet Vesta and the dwarf-planet Ceres. Dawn arrived at Vesta in 2011, took thousands of images and then moved along toward Ceres.

Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres on March 6, but it's taking the opportunity of its approach to capture the clearest images ever of the dwarf planet. The latest set of images were taken at a distance of about 52,000 miles. They show a considerable number of craters. What's more unusual is a series of notable bright spots.

"We expected to be surprised; we did not expect to be this puzzled," Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, says. He says the images have left researchers "none the wiser." NASA's team will be investigating Ceres' composition and geological features as Dawn moves in for a better view.

Information gathered at Ceres will be compared with the data and images gleaned from Vesta. Researchers hope to learn more about the earliest history and evolution of our solar system through studying both objects.

The giant asteroid Vesta is about 326 miles in diameter, around the size of the state of Arizona. Ceres is even larger, at about 590 miles in diameter. Previous images of Ceres from mid-January were vague, but still hinted at the presence of craters. As Dawn closes in, we can look forward to even clearer images as new details of the dwarf planet emerge.