NASA's Dawn spacecraft recently captured a new photo of Ceres as it makes its way closer to the planet and becomes the first spacecraft to ever do so.

The new photo is still a little grainy and not as good as those taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004. However, in a few weeks, as Dawn gets closer to Ceres, its photos will put the Hubble photos to shame.

Dawn took this photo on January 13 from about 238,000 miles from the dwarf planet.

Dawn will eventually enter orbit around Ceres on March 6. It will spend 16 months there and capture high-resolution images of Ceres, unlike anything we've seen so far. Dawn is the first spacecraft to study Ceres. Dawn is also the first spacecraft to study two deep space planetary bodies up close, having visited dwarf planet Vesta a few years ago.

Ceres is the largest body in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists believe that Ceres' composition is mostly ice but that an ocean sits just underneath that icy surface.

"We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres," says Marc Rayman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Now, Dawn is ready to change that."

This latest photo, though, reveals some of the mystery of Ceres, showing us hints of surface features on the dwarf planet, including craters.

NASA launched Dawn in 2007 with two main missions: to study Vesta and Ceres. It became the first spacecraft to visit Vesta in 2011 and spent 14 months in orbit around that dwarf planet, studying it for the first time in detail. Because of that first mission, we learned that Vesta contains a core rich in metals, leading scientists to believe that Vesta is one of the last large bodies that formed the solar system's rocky planets.

In 2012, Dawn showed dark spots on Vesta's surface, believed the result of ancient impacts by asteroids. Dawn also uncovered crevasses on Vesta that suggest the dwarf planet once had flowing liquid water on its surface.

Scientists expect Ceres to also hold several surprises, especially considering we currently don't know much about it.

"The team is very excited to examine the surface of Ceres in never-before-seen detail," says Dawn's principal investigator Chris Russell. "We look forward to the surprises this mysterious world may bring."

One of those surprises could be alien life, considering that Ceres possibly has oceans underneath its ice. We'll know more when Dawn enters the planet's orbit in March.

[Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI]

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Tags: Ceres Dawn NASA