Stargazers and space lovers can now get a glimpse of what it would be like to fly over the surface of a distant dwarf planet, thanks to a new NASA animation.Enceladus, Ceres closeups captured by NASA spacecraft

A short video released by NASA uses images taken from the Dawn spacecraft to simulate the experience of orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest known object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. 

The images were taken between August and October 2015 from 1,450 kilometres above the dwarf planet's surface.

"The simulated overflight shows the wide range of crater shapes that we have encountered on Ceres. The viewer can observe the sheer walls of the crater Occator, and also Dantu and Yalode, where the craters are a lot flatter," Ralf Jaumann, a Dawn mission scientist from the German Aerospace Center, said in a blog post for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Ceres's craters are named after "earthly agricultural spirits, deities and festivals," NASA says. The video uses enhanced colours "to highlight subtle differences in the appearance of surface materials."

Dawn first arrived at Ceres in March 2015, marking the first mission to a dwarf planet.

Since then, it has captured stunning close-up images of Ceres and collected data on its mysterious bright spots, now believed to be deposits of magnesium sulphate.

Discovered in 1801, Ceres — measuring 965 kilometres across — is named after the Roman goddess of agriculture and harvest. It was initially called a planet before it was demoted to an asteroid and later classified as a dwarf planet. 


An artist's rendition of NASA's Dawn spacecraft heading towards Ceres. (NASA)

Like planets, dwarf planets are spherical, but unlike planets, they share their orbits around the sun with other similar-sized bodies.

Dawn, which launched in 2007, is in its final and lowest mapping orbit around Ceres, about 385 kilometres from the surface. 

Before arriving at Ceres, the spacecraft spent 14 months orbiting the asteroid Vesta in the asteroid belt.