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Mars Rover Curiosity brings scientific treasure into view with color panorama of crater

Pete SpottsThe Christian Science Monitor
JPL-Caltech/NASA illustration

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has returned the first full-circle color panorama of its landing site in Gale Crater, providing scientists with the first on-the-ground look at their ultimate destination – distant knolls and layered rock formations at the base of Mt. Sharp.

Mt. Sharp, the informal name given to a mountain that rises nearly 16,000 feet above the crater floor, has a treasure-trove of information – Mars’ climate history – locked up in its rocks, researchers say.

Most important, they say, the rocks hold clues as to whether the 3-billion to 4-billion-year-old crater might have hosted conditions favorable for the emergence of life early in the planet's history.

The color panorama was built from low-resolution thumbnail images taken by MastCam, one of three camera systems perched 7 feet above the Martian surface atop Curiosity's mast. Some 20 to 24 of the larger, higher resolution images that will begin building the next panorama are expected to arrive on Friday.

Still, the preview drew an enthusiast welcome from Dawn Sumner, a geologist at the University of California at Davis and a member of the science team using the high-resolution camera. The camera is being used to scout new rocks and soil deposits for close-up analysis.

The rock layers "are recording the history in Gale Crater, and they are the main reason we chose Gale Crater – to study those rocks," she said in a briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Thursday. "It's very exciting to think about getting there."

Starting Saturday, engineers will spend four days replacing the software that governed the rover during its landing on Mars to a software package that will govern it during its two-year mission at Gale Crater.

Once the software has been swapped, flight controllers will download the remaining high-resolution color images researchers will use to build their detailed portrait of the rover's new surroundings.

Prior to Curiosity's arrival, the science team divided an image of the rover's landing zone into squares, or quads, roughly a mile on a side and began mapping features in the images as potential targets for the rover's investigations en route to Mt. Sharp.

Ironically, NASA's mechanical alien from Earth landed in quad 51, a postage-stamp patch that shares a number with the US Air Force Base in southern Nevada that is the object of many a UFO conspiracy theory.

The science team now is working up an agenda for the rover, identifying "the key observations we can make here that will tell us about our landing site," Dr. Sumner says.

The team has been using images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to develop their maps, but those images lack the detail to spot small features that also may be of interest. Researchers plan to overlay those with images from the Mars Descent Imager, which took high-resolution photos of the approaching ground as descent stage delivered the rover to Mars.

For all the harsh conditions Curiosity faces on Mars, it's got the easy part of this mission, compared with its human coworkers. Its designers figured out how to keep it comfortable in the wide temperature swings of a Martian day, or sol, and it’s built to withstand the elevated levels of radiation coming in from the cosmos.

Meanwhile, on Earth, planning teams work long hours – on Mars time. Each workday on Earth starts 40 minutes later than the previous one to keep in sync with sols.

Various teams on the ground meet from about 5 p.m. Mars time through about 9:45 the next Martian morning to assess information from the rover from the previous day and plan its next set of activities. At about 9:45, they have a narrow slice of time to send new commands to the rover.

For Curiosity, however, it's a leisurely wake-up around 9:30 a.m. Mars time, and lights-out at 5:00 p.m.

All the creature comforts you need. An exotic location. A good night's sleep. Such a life.