NASA probe returns best-ever images of dwarf planet Ceres

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WASHINGTON. KAZINFORM - U.S. space agency NASA said Tuesday its Dawn spacecraft has returned the sharpest images of dwarf planet Ceres, revealing the possible presence of craters and other "tantalizing features" on the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The images, taken 147,000 miles (about 237,000 kilometers) from Ceres on Jan. 25, are more than 30 percent higher in resolution than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004, NASA said. And the probe will send back increasingly better and better images over the next two months as it heads towards its historic rendezvous with the dwarf planet on March 6, which will mark the first time a human-made spacecraft has ever visited a dwarf planet. "We are already seeing areas and details on Ceres popping out that had not been seen before. For instance, there are several dark features in the southern hemisphere that might be craters within a region that is darker overall," said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator of the Dawn mission, in a statement. "Data from this mission will revolutionize our understanding of this unique body. Ceres is showing us tantalizing features that are whetting our appetite for the detailed exploration to come," Raymond said. The new Dawn images came on the heels of initial navigation images taken Jan. 13 that revealed a white spot on the dwarf planet and the suggestion of craters. NASA said Hubble images also had glimpsed a white spot on the dwarf planet, but its nature is still unknown. Ceres was discovered in 1801 by astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, who named the object for the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships. Originally described as a planet, Ceres was later categorized as an asteroid and then reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006. It has an average diameter of 590 miles (about 950 kilometers), and is thought to contain a large amount of ice. Some scientists think it's possible that the surface conceals an ocean. Launched in 2007, the Dawn probe has also visited the asteroid Vesta, the second most massive object in the asteroid belt. NASA said missions like Dawn will help understand how the solar system began and how the planets were formed, Kazinform refers to Xinhuanet.com

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