Thanks to a new animated image of Ceres, pieced together from dozens of high resolution images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, scientists now have a better understanding of the mysterious bright spots that dot the surface of the dwarf planet.

Dawn's cameras took these images between May 3 and 4, 2015. Dawn's distance from Ceres at the time was around 8,400 miles.

This is the closest view yet we've had of Ceres and shows the bright spots in higher detail than we've seen before, particularly those in Ceres' northern hemisphere. The image resolution is 0.8 mile per pixel.

Scientists still aren't 100 percent certain what those bright spots represent, but previously theorized that they could represent icy volcanic activity on the dwarf planet's surface.

Now, though, scientists are closer to understanding what these spots are.

"Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice," says Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission.

See for yourself:

However, these new images don't just reveal more about Ceres' bright spots, but we can also now see features outlined on the dwarf planet's surface, including the various shapes of craters there, along with their sizes.

Dawn took these images during a "mapping orbit" of Ceres, which took 15 days. As Dawn's cameras snapped away, its scientific instruments started collecting data. Last week, Dawn started a descent that will take it even closer to the dwarf planet: it should reach that lower orbit, within 2,700 miles of Ceres' surface, on June 6.

Then, Dawn will only take three days to orbit Ceres, while it takes more photos and data, mapping Ceres' features for further study, as well as unveil mysteries not just about the dwarf planet's bright spots, but also about its geological history.

Dawn is the first spacecraft to ever visit Ceres, just as it was also the first spacecraft to ever visit asteroid Vesta. The Dawn mission is the first to study two planetary bodies in our solar system. That's a lot of firsts, but Dawn is just getting started.

Want to learn more about Dawn's historic Ceres mission? You can read up on the key goals of the mission here.

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

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Tags: Ceres Dawn NASA