These incredible images are the best yet of our near-neighbour dwarf planet Ceres

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft made history on March 6 when it became the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet. That dwarf planet is called Ceres, and we’re finally seeing the first close up images of it.

Ceres is the largest object floating in a band of rocky debris, called the asteroid belt, which hangs out just on the other side of Mars.

The newest images from Dawn reveal a crater-riddled Ceres — evidence of its violent past among the asteroids.

Astronomers used blue, green, and infrared light to create this surface map of Ceres from the images. The different colours are meant to illustrate how diverse its surface is:

The map suggests that Ceres was not just a inactive lump of rock throughout its history, according toChris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission. The planet was probably once very active, though scientists aren’t exactly sure about what kind of activity was happening on Ceres.

That mystery might be solved when we learn more about the planet’s weird bright spots, shown in the image below. Astronomers have no idea what they are. Speculation about them has ranged from chunks of ice to volcanoes to geysers.

Now we have a new close up image of those mystery bright spots in infrared. The new image has only deepened the mystery though, because the two neighbouring spots show up differently under infrared light.

The top row of the image below shows the bright spot near Ceres’s equator. The bottom row shows a pair of bright spots close together. You can see that the pair of bright spots are invisible under infrared light in the bottom right picture.

It might be invisible because the spacecraft isn’t close enough yet, or it might mean that the pair of bright spots are actually an ice plume and that’s why they don’t show up under infrared. We won’t know until Dawn gets closer.

In the meantime the spacecraft caught some great photos of Ceres during its approach. Dawn snapped this photo in early March:

The spacecraft has gotten much closer now, and NASA released this gif of the planet that Dawn captured on April 10:

On April 13 right before slipping into orbit around the Ceres, it caught this closeup of the planet’s north pole:

Dawn was hovering about 14,000 miles over the dwarf planet when it snapped this photo.

Now it’s stuck on the Ceres’s dark side, so we’ll have to wait a little while for the truly spectacular images.

More detailed observations will start happening on Thursday, April 23 when the spacecraft settles into permanent orbit. On May 9 Dawn will start spiraling even closer to the planet and we’ll probably start seeing some exquisite shots.

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