NASA's Dawn spacecraft is getting super close to its planned orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres. As they wait for the spacecraft's orbital entry on March 6, NASA researchers continue to enjoy unprecedented images of the mysterious dwarf. But instead of answering long-held questions, the scientists report, the improved images (taken on Feb. 12 from a distance of 52,000 miles) just raise more.
"As we slowly approach the stage, our eyes transfixed on Ceres and her planetary dance, we find she has beguiled us but left us none the wiser," Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, said in a statement. "We expected to be surprised; we did not expect to be this puzzled."
These latest images have a resolution of 4.9 miles per pixel -- the sharpest photos ever taken of Ceres, which is the largest body in our solar system's asteroid belt. By comparing Ceres with Vesta, a giant asteroid that takes the title of second-largest object in the belt, NASA scientists hope to learn more about how both objects formed. Dawn already explored Vesta in 2011, so researchers are eager to get their hands on data about Ceres.
Much has been made of Ceres's mysterious white dot. In the new photos, we can see pock-marked details of the crater-packed planet, and its single white spot has turned into a multitude of such features -- but it's still not clear what makes parts of its surface so brilliantly reflective.