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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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TEDxYouth@CATPickering - David Low - On humor and education

David Low, comic artist and innovative educator, uses and discusses humor, its place in teaching and learning, and its potential to change the world. David earned degrees from The University of Arizona and New York University and is seeking his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Before reentering school as a learner, he taught 10th and 11th grade English Language Arts in Arizona and self-published a collection of single-panel cartoons. In thespirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)
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A 27-foot mirror for the Giant Magellan Telescope was cast on Jan. 14 inside a rotating furnace at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. A round furnace the size of a carousel spinning 21 tons of borosilicate glass heated to 2,140 degrees Fahrenheit slowly melted into a mold to create the giant telescope mirror. The unique fabrication process in the one-of-a-kind furnace results in a lightweight glass structure that can float in water, but is very stiff and able to adjust to changes in the nighttime air. The mirror is one of seven that together will make the largest telescope ever built, the Giant Magellan Telescope, slated to begin observations in 2020 at the Las Campanas Observatory in northern Chile, above the Atacama Desert where there is little to hinder the view into the night sky.

“In this design the outer six mirrors are off-axis paraboloids and represent the greatest optics challenge ever undertaken in astronomical
optics by a large factor,” said Roger Angel, director of the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. The GMT will allow astronomers to answer some of the most pressing questions about the cosmos including the detection, imaging and characterization of planets orbiting other stars, the nature of dark matter and dark energy, the physics of black holes, and how stars and
galaxies evolved during the earliest phases of the universe.


GMT2 installation of honeycomb columns prior to casting at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. Ray Bertram/Steward Observatory


GMT2 installation of mold columns–about half way through the installation of more than 1600 individual columns. Ray Bertram/Steward Observatory


Unpacking, inspecting, and sorting Ohara E6 glass. Randy Lutz, Mirror Lab casting team manager, views each piece of glass with polarized light to help evaluate the glass for evidence of internal stress and other imperfections. Ray Bertram/Steward Observatory


Loading the Ohara E6 glass. Each piece of glass has been inspected and graded, then placed into position over the tops of the mold columns according to a predetermined distribution pattern. Ray Bertram/Steward Observatory


Glass loading completed; oven lid is lowered for the final preparations prior to heating and spinning the oven. The oven lid electrical heating coils and thermocouple probes are clearly visible in this view. Ray Bertram/Steward Observatory


The UA’s Steward Mirror Lab makes the world’s only honeycomb mirrors in a process called spin casting inside this spinning furnace built in the 1980s. Patrick McArdle/UANews


GMT1 on LPM (Large Polishing Machine) using small orbital polishing tool for precision zone polishing. Ray Bertram/Steward Observatory

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The Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition lets us see beyond the capabilities of our unaided eyes. Almost 2000 entries from 70 countries vied for recognition in the 37th annual contest, which celebrates photography through a microscope. Images two through 21 showcase the contest's winners in order, and are followed by a selection of other outstanding works. Scientists and photographers turned their attention on a wide range of subjects, both living and man-made, from lacewing larva to charged couple devices, sometimes magnifying them over 2000 times their original size. -- Lane Turner (38 photos total)
Wim van Egmond of the Micropolitan Museum in Rotterdam, Netherlands photographed a Leptodora kindtii (giant waterflea) eye from a living specimen using the differential interference contrast method. (Wim van Egmond)

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Now that the final space shuttle has landed, many thousands involved with it have lost their jobs, and budget cuts loom, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the other projects NASA has been working on recently, and what will be keeping the agency busy in the coming years. There has been a flurry of discoveries and firsts just this year alone, as scientists have discovered a fourth moon around Pluto, and a spacecraft has entered orbit around the asteroid Vesta for the first time. Earlier this month the spacecraft Juno launched toward Jupiter, while workers prepared the next Mars rover, Curiosity, for launch by the end of this year. All of this on top of supporting existing missions to the sun, Mercury, Earth, Mars, Saturn and more. Collected here is just a small recent sampling of NASA's far-reaching projects and missions. [33 photos]

Rising from fire and smoke, NASA's Juno planetary probe, enclosed in its payload fairing, launches atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Leaving from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, on August 5, 2011, the spacecraft will embark on a five-year journey to Jupiter. The solar-powered spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere and investigate the existence of a solid planetary core. (NASA/Scott Andrews)

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