A NASA space probe has added to the gallery of stunning images of objects in our solar system, capturing dramatic new photos of the dwarf Planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
The Dawn spacecraft has obtained the highest-resolution views of the almost 600-mile wide world since it entered Ceres' orbit March 6, the space agency announced.
The close-up view of the dwarf planet's north pole and surrounding hemisphere were taken from a distance of just 21,000 miles, and Ceres science teams members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., say even better images will be possible in the coming weeks.
Dawn's program of full science observations are set to begin April 23, when the spacecraft will be even closer to Ceres -- around 8,400 miles -- and lighting conditions are expected to be even better, JPL says.
One puzzle NASA scientists hope to figure out is mysterious bright spots on the dwarf planet's surface, some of which show different temperatures than the areas surrounding them.
What the spots consist of and why they display different temperatures is at the moment unknown, they say.
The answer may come on May 9, when controllers will instruct Dawn to move even closer to the dwarf planet, dropping to lower orbits for even more detailed observations.
The Dawn mission launched in September 2007 with the goal of being the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial targets; the giant asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres.
The space probe spent 14 months orbiting Vesta, from 2011 to 2012, before heading toward Ceres.
Vesta, at around 326 miles across, is the second biggest asteroid in the Solar System behind Ceres, which has been classified as both a giant asteroid and more recently a dwarf planet, largely due to the fact of its being the only object in the asteroid belt that has taken on a spherical shape due to its own gravity.
The new classification was decided by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, when it also "demoted" Pluto to the same dwarf planet status.
Dawn will spend 14 months in orbit around Ceres, gradually moving into lower orbits in a series of steps to map and measure the tiny world.
After that, sometime around June 2016, the spacecraft's fuel is expected to be exhausted, ending the mission, JPL says.