NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which was launched in 2007 to study two massive objects in the main asteroid belt, Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres, is closing in on Ceres.

New images Dawn has captured of this extraterrestrial world at 27 pixels across is about thrice better compared with the calibration images that were taken last December, and these will be taken for navigational uses during the spacecraft's approach to the dwarf planet.

As the spacecraft nears its orbit insertion around Ceres, which is expected to happen on Mar. 6, Dawn will take increasingly better images as Dawn spirals closer to the planet's surface during its study period of 16 months.

Dawn's most recent images, which were taken on Jan. 13, were only at about 80 percent of the resolution of Hubble Space Telescope, but these fresh images will eventually surpass Hubble's resolution the next time new images come in by the end of the month.

Although the first of these series of images taken from a distance of 383,000 kilometers were not quite as high quality compared with the images taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 and 2005, astronomers said that these are already offering hints about what scientists could find in the dwarf planet.

Andreas Nathues of the framing camera team from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research said that the images already provide clues of first surface structures such as craters. Scientists likewise expect that the images that Dawn will capture as it gets closer to the planet would provide more hints on what lies on and beneath the surface of Ceres.

Currently available evidence suggests that Ceres has an ice layer beneath a dusty and thin crust and the planet may have frost on its surface.

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

Ceres is the largest known object in the main asteroid belt, a region lying between planets Jupiter and Mars. This extraterrestrial world, which has an average diameter of 950 kilometers, is believed to contain massive amounts of ice. Some experts also believe that the planet's surface may be hiding an ocean.

The arrival of the Dawn spacecraft at Ceres will be the first time that a man-made spacecraft gets to visit a dwarf planet.

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