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NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Closer To Unraveling Mystery Behind Bright Spots On Dwarf Planet Ceres

PASADENA (CBS SF) -- Scientists are on the edge of their seats as NASA's Dawn spacecraft nears dwarf planet Ceres and the mysterious spots first seen on its surface last month.

Detailed images taken in February showed a number of craters and brights spots that scientists believe tell how Ceres, the first object discovered in our solar system's asteroid belt, formed and whether its surface is changing.

"What's exciting is we don't know what (the spots) are," Ben Burress, a staff astronomer at the Chabot Space and Science Center told KPIX 5.

But as the spacecraft spirals into closer and closer orbits around the dwarf planet, researchers say the strange features could suggest current geological activity and something much bigger.

"It means potentially life-friendly habitat. So, potentially, we might find life there," Burress said.

Dawn will be the first successful mission to visit a dwarf planet once it enters orbit around Ceres on Friday, March 6.

Cratered Surface of Ceres in Motion by Dawn Mission Engagement and Communications (E/C) on YouTube

The spacecraft explored the giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months during 2011 and 2012. Detailed photos showed its cratered surface, revealing vast information about the geological history of the rock . Comparing Vesta and Ceres will develop a better understanding of our solar system.

"Both Vesta and Ceres were on their way to becoming planets, but their development was interrupted by the gravity of Jupiter," said Carol Raymond, deputy project scientist at JPL. "These two bodies are like fossils from the dawn of the solar system, and they shed light on its origins."

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