Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated 
By Alan Boyle

The latest picture from NASA's Dawn mission shows an unprecedented close-up view of the dwarf planet Ceres' pockmarked surface, from a distance of 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers). And although Ceres' mysterious bright spots aren't in the frame, the view suggests that the mystery may not go on that much longer.

The May 23 image was part of the last photographic sequence that was snapped primarily for navigational purposes. Next week, Dawn is due to begin a scientific mapping campaign at an altitude of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). That campaign will collect global imagery through the end of the month. Then the car-sized probe will continuing spiraling closer and closer to the surface.

Last week, Dawn's top scientists told NBC News that Ceres' bright spots are probably made of reflective water ice, but the upcoming rounds of observations should solve the mystery definitively. Dawn was launched in 2007, studied the asteroid Vesta for more than a year, then moved on to Ceres — which is the biggest asteroid and the smallest known dwarf planet.