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Get up close with Ceres' weird bright spots in new NASA photo

NASA's Dawn spacecraft cozies up to the fascinating dwarf planet Ceres and sends back the best look yet at its oddball bright spots.

Dawn Ceres close
Ceres' spots are just a mysterious as before. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

There's something strange on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres. Scientists and space fans have been following NASA's Dawn mission as it sends back ever clearer views of a set of mysterious bright spots. The spots first came into view in mid-February as Dawn closed in on Ceres. Possible explanations for the luminous bits (some submitted by CNET readers) range from reflective ice to the headlights of a spacecraft.

The headlight theory just took a considerable blow thanks to a new Dawn image taken on June 6 and released by NASA today, June 10. The image comes from Dawn's second mapping orbit of the dwarf planet. It was taken from 2,700 miles above the surface and brings the bright spots into better focus.

What initially appeared to be large splotches are shaping up to be collections of smaller bright spots with a cluster of brightness in the middle. This image may be the clearest yet, but it hasn't cleared up the mystery behind the reflective areas.

"The bright spots in this configuration make Ceres unique from anything we've seen before in the solar system. The science team is working to understand their source. Reflection from ice is the leading candidate in my mind, but the team continues to consider alternate possibilities, such as salt," said Dawn mission principal investigator Chris Russell.

Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. NASA launched the Dawn spacecraft in 2007 with the mission to approach and study protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres.

The bright spots may be the most intriguing features on Ceres, but scientists are also fascinated by flows and landslides that indicate activity on the dwarf planet's surface. In early August, Dawn is scheduled to move in even closer to Ceres, which may help pinpoint the exact nature of those intriguing reflective spots. For now, NASA has compiled some of its images into a video suggesting what it's like to orbit Ceres.