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Fly Over Dwarf Planet Ceres’ Mysterious Bright Spots in New NASA Video

With or without 3-D glasses, a newly released video tour of Ceres offers a new perspective on the dwarf planet's dramatic and diverse surface.

The new Ceres video tour, which was compiled from images gathered by NASA's orbiting Dawn spacecraft, scopes out the mysterious bright spots at the bottom of the dwarf planet's 2-mile-deep (3.2 kilometers) Occator crater and a 4-mile-high (6.4 km) mountain scientists are calling "The Pyramid."

"This mountain is among the tallest features we've seen on Ceres to date," Dawn science team member Paul Schenk, a geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, said in a statement. "It's unusual that it's not associated with a crater. Why is it sitting in the middle of nowhere? We don't know yet, but we may find out with closer observations." [Photos: Dwarf Planet Ceres, the Solar System's Largest Asteroid]

The Pyramid also has unusual bright streaks running down one side, which are not yet understood. Its 4-mile height is a revision from researchers' previous estimate of 3 miles (4.8 km).

Ceres' more familiar — but perhaps even more mysterious — bright spots reside inside Occator, a 60-mile-wide (97 km) crater. Occator only recently received an official name, but scientists have been speculating on the bright spots' nature and origin since they were first glimpsed in January as Dawn approached the dwarf planet.

What Can We Learn From Visiting Ceres? 0:43

Dawn's measurements of the spots — which appear to be subliming gas to create a mini-atmosphere within the crater — are so far not consistent with the properties of water ice, researchers said.

"The science team is continuing to evaluate the data and discuss theories about these bright spots at Occator," Dawn principal investigator Chris Russell, of UCLA, said in the statement. "We are now comparing the spots with the reflective properties of salt, but we are still puzzled by their source. We look forward to new, higher-resolution data from the mission's next orbital phase."

The new animation has vertical relief exaggerated by a factor of five to make it easier to examine the strange topographies and notice subtle changes, NASA officials said. By examining such an animation, scientists can get a better idea of how particular features of interest fit into the overall structure of the dwarf planet.

This is a condensed version of a report from Live Science. Read the full report. Email Sarah Lewin at slewin@space.com or follow her @SarahExplains. Follow Space.com @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+.

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