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Mars Science Laboratory

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Image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Taking pictures on another world has never been just point and click. For decades, unmanned probes from Earth have been venturing to distant planets, moons and other bodies—and for just as many decades, the images they have sent home have been composed and transmitted in a decidedly painstaking way. That is especially so in the case of the 360-degree panorama NASA is now releasing of the Curiosity rover’s landing site in Mars’s Gale Crater.

Even on Earth, you have to be selective when you photograph a landscape. After all, no matter how glorious your picture of one part of the Grand Canyon is, it by definition leaves out countless other, equally glorious parts. The only way to capture the whole sweep of the place is to take many small images and bit by bit, piece them all together. That’s hard enough when the camera is in your hand. Now imagine doing it when all of your hardware is 154 million miles away and the data has to be streamed back you in a comparative trickle that, even moving at light speed, takes 17 minutes to get here.

(See more: Inside Look at the Mars Curiosity Rover)

But NASA did just that to produce its full pirouette picture of the Marscape that surrounds Curiosity. The panorama was built from 30 smaller images shot by the rover’s Navcams—or navigation cameras—on Aug. 18 and Aug. 7. Each picture has a resolution of 1,024 pixels by 1,024 pixels, and all of them have been combined in such a way that the seams connecting them disappear. The lighter colored strip at the top right of the image is the rim of Gale Crater—chosen as the landing site because it was once a deep sea. Also visible is the peak of nearby Mount Sharp, which rises 3.4 mi. (5.5 km) into the rust-red sky. The portions of the picture in the Martian sky that appear gray are parts of the mosaic that have not yet been added, but will be the next time NASA updates the image.

As their name implies, the Navcams are used mostly for reconnaissance purposes—scouting out where the rover will drive and mapping the best route to get there. They were thus not designed with beauty in mind—and that means they shoot only in black and white. The cameras mounted atop Curiosity’s mast capture the full range of desert-like colors that define the brutally beautiful Gale Crater environment. The entire suite of on-board cameras will have a lot of work to do in the two years ahead—and every picture they take will be one worth saving. Once the rover starts rolling, after all, it will never be staying in any one place for long.

(Related: Window on Infinity: Pictures from Space)

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NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Ariz.

A long strip image from the high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the Curiosity rover's landing spot in Gale Crater, as well as the terrain leading south toward the mountain known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp. The colors have been stretched to emphasize differences in surface composition. A dune field can be seen in deep shades of blue. Beyond the dunes, mesas and buttes are part of the terrain surrounding the 3-mile-high mountain.

By Alan Boyle

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Fresh imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the newly arrived Curiosity rover sitting at its landing site in Gale Crater, as well as the sand dunes and rugged terrain that the rover must pass through to conduct its $2.5 billion science mission.

The dunes are painted in colorful shades of ultramarine, but those aren't the true colors: Most of the color images from the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, are color-coded to emphasize subtle differences in surface composition. The shades of blue are actually dusty shades of gray to the human eye. The area around the rover itself has a blue tinge because of the dust that was disturbed during Curiosity's rocket-powered sky-crane landing on Aug. 5.

Even some of the pictures sent back from the surface by Curiosity have been brightened up to reflect Earthlike lighting conditions, said HiRISE's principal investigator, Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona. Pictures from Mars look "blander" because the sunlight has to filter through red Martian dust in the atmosphere, he said. Many of the processed pictures from Curiosity's mission are being provided in both "true color" (Marslike) and "white-balanced" (Earthlike) versions.

Curiosity's primary mission is due to last one Martian year, or almost two Earth years, and the rover might need the first half of that mission to make its way south through the dunes. A picture from Curiosity's vantage point shows the dunes as a dark streak in the distance.

"We need to get to the clays which are just beyond that dune field that you see, and then up into the sulfate-bearing rocks which tend to form these buttes and mesas," said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist. "You're seeing really the scientific mission before you here."

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Vasavada said it's about 5 miles (8 kilometers) as the crow flies between the rover and its science targets at the base of a 3-mile-high mountain (5-kilometer-high) known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp. McEwen said there's roughly 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) between the rover and the bottom edge of the orbital image, which was taken six days after Curiosity's landing from an altitude of about 168 miles (270 kilometers).

The rover is designed to analyze rocks and soil for the chemical signatures of potential habitability — using a laser zapper, an X-ray beam, a drill, an onboard laboratory and other high-tech gear. Curiosity is still going through its post-landing checkouts, but the show could start going on the road in a week or so.

More about Mars:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBC News' other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.

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If all goes well, tomorrow morning at approximately 10:02 a.m. Eastern time (GMT-5), NASA will launch its newest rover named Curiosity from Florida's Cape Canaveral, headed on a nine-month trip to the planet Mars. The $2.3 billion mission will send a capsule into the Martian sky in August of 2012. After decelerating in the atmosphere, a series of entry events will quickly take place, ending with a rocket-powered sky crane lowering the rover gently to the surface. Curiosity is a beast of a rover, weighing one ton, measuring ten feet long by seven feet tall (at the top of the mast), and powered by a plutonium-238 fueled electrical generator. The rover carries ten instruments, including several high-resolution cameras, and a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy instrument called ChemCam that can vaporize tiny amounts of minerals and analyze their components. If all goes according to plan, Curiosity is scheduled for a stay on Mars of about 668 Martian sols, or nearly two Earth years, starting in Gale crater. Researchers hope to use the tools on Curiosity to study whether the area in Gale crater has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life existed. (Edit: The launch was successful, and Curiosity is due to land in August of 2012.) [34 photos]

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, on May 26, 2011, in Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The rover was shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on June 22, 2011. The mission is scheduled to launch tomorrow, November 26, 2011, and land the Curiosity on Mars in August of 2012. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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