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NASA probe snaps increasingly detailed shots of MOIST DWARF goddess

What lies beneath Ceres' icy mantle?

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has transmitted a series of images of the dwarf planet Ceres - part of its first ever mission to the biggest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

New images of Ceres from the Dawn vehicle

Dawn will transmit increasingly sharp images of Ceres - named for the Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility - before orbiting the planet on 6 March in a 16-month study of the body.

Ceres has an average diameter of 590 miles, and is thought to contain a large amount of ice.

Some boffins believe the surface may conceal an ocean of water below an icy mantle.

Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer at NASA, said: "We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that."

Andreas Nathues, lead investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, said: "Already, the [latest] images hint at first surface structures such as craters."

To date Dawn has already delivered more than 30,000 images about Vesta, the second biggest body in the asteroid belt. Dawn orbited Vesta, which has an average diameter of 326 miles, from 2011 to 2012.

The satellite launched in September 2007, and due to its ion propulsion system is the first spacecraft ever targeted to orbit two deep-space destinations.

The latest images show the dwarf planet at 27 pixels across, about three times better than the calibration images taken in early December.

The best images of Ceres so far were taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2003 and 2004. ®

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