Image: Mars high-resolution view
NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS
This photo from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows the layered geologic history of the base of Mount Sharp, the 3-mile-high mountain rising from the center of Gale Crater. The foreground terrain rises to a crest about 755 feet (230 meters) away from the rover.
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updated 8/28/2012 9:46:25 PM ET 2012-08-29T01:46:25

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has beamed home the first human voice ever sent from another planet, as well as some spectacular new images of its Martian environs.

The 1-ton Curiosity rover broadcast a pre-loaded greeting from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, who congratulated the mission team for getting the huge robot to Mars safely. While the significance of the audio accomplishment is largely symbolic, NASA officials hope it presages a more substantial human presence on the Red Planet down the road.

"With this, we have another small step that's being taken in extending the human presence beyond Earth, and actually bringing that experience of exploring the planets back a little closer to all of us," said Curiosity program executive Dave Lavery, invoking the famous line that the late astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered from the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.

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"As Curiosity continues her mission, we hope the words of the administrator will be an inspiration to someone who's alive today, who will become the first to stand upon the surface of the planet Mars," Lavery told reporters Monday. "Like the great Neil Armstrong, they'll be able to speak aloud — in first person at that point — of the next giant leap in human exploration."

The mission team also unveiled a stunning 360-degree panorama of Curiosity's Gale Crater landing site, showing in crisp detail some of the landforms scientists want the six-wheeled robot to explore. [Video: Curiosity's Martian Panorama]

Searching for habitable environments
Curiosity touched down inside Mars' huge Gale Crater on the night of Aug. 5, tasked with determining whether the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life.

For the next two years, Curiosity is slated to explore Gale and the crater's 3.4-mile-high  central peak, the mysterious Mount Sharp. The $2.5 billion rover is outfitted with 10 different science instruments to aid its quest, including a rock-zapping laser and gear that can identify organic compounds — the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it.

Curiosity's ultimate destination is the base of Mount Sharp, where Mars-orbiting spacecraft have spotted signs of long-ago exposure to liquid water. These interesting deposits lie about 6 miles (10 km) from the rover's landing site as the crow flies.

The new 360-degree panorama, which is composed of 140 images snapped by Curiosity on Aug. 8 and Aug. 18, shows Mount Sharp's many-layered foothills, as well as its upper reaches stretching into a brown-tinged Martian sky. [Gallery: Photos from Curiosity's 4th Week on Mars]

The mosaic has Curiosity's scientists licking their chops.

"I think when those of us on the science team looked at this image for the first time, you get the feeling, 'That's what I'm talking about,'" said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, a geologist at Caltech in Pasadena. "That is why we picked this landing site."

While researchers are most excited about the potential discoveries that await them on Mount Sharp's flanks, the scenic beauty captured in the panorama got their hearts racing, too, Grotzinger said.

The terrain "looks like it was something that comes out of a John Ford movie," he said.

A year away?
Though Curiosity took its first short test drive last week, it still hasn't strayed far from its landing site, which the mission team dubbed "Bradbury Landing" in honor of the late sci-fi author Ray Bradbury.

The rover should be ready to head out in a few days, Grotzinger said — but Curiosity won't be going straight to Mount Sharp. Rather, the first stop is Glenelg, a site 1,300 feet (400 meters) away where three different types of terrain come together in one place.

It'll likely take the rover a month or two to reach Glenelg, where it will spend another large chunk of time performing science operations. Curiosity could be ready to turn its wheels toward Mount Sharp by the end of the year, Grotzinger has said.

But it'll take Curiosity a while to reach the mountain. The rover will probably cover a maximum of about 330 feet (100 meters) per day after it's fully checked out, researchers have said. And it may stop along the way to Mount Sharp to study interesting landforms.

"It'll probably take us a year to get there," Grotzinger said.

Also on Monday, Curiosity scientists announced that tests of the rover's onboard chemistry laboratory, SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars), are going well. SAM can detect organics in Martian soil, and it will sniff the Red Planet's atmosphere for methane, which may be a sign of life as organisms here on Earth are known to generate the gas.

The SAM tests are part of an ongoing checkout of Curiosity and its science instruments, which has proceeded very smoothly so far.

"Curiosity, as you've gathered by now, is a very complicated beast with lots of parts, and the project's being very systematic about testing things out," said SAM principal investigator Paul Mahaffy, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

"We think of ourselves a little bit as the nose of Curiosity, and we're getting ready to start sniffing," Mahaffy added.

Follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall or Space.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Video: Mars Curiosity sends new photos

  1. Closed captioning of: Mars Curiosity sends new photos

    >>> the busy mars rover curiosity continues to send back stellar and detailed photography of the countryside. look at this. the bands of sediment in the hillside, the color of the soil, the topography continue to remind folks of portions of the american southwest .

Photos: Curiosity's space odyssey to Mars

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  1. Caring for Curiosity

    NASA's Curiosity rover is as big as a compact car and weighs a ton ... and it's on Mars. Here's where the journey began. A white-room team works on the six-wheeled spacecraft on Aug. 13, 2011, at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Liftoff!

    An Atlas 5 rocket rises from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Nov. 26, 2011, with NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft sealed inside its payload fairing. That spacecraft, in turn, enclosed and protected the Curiosity rover. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mohawk Guy at work

    Activity lead Bobak Ferdowsi works inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Curiosity rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Aug. 5, 2012 - the rover's landing day. Ferdowsi, who adopts a fresh hairdo for each space mission, became an Internet sensation thanks to his stars-and-stripes Mohawk and his youthful manner. (Brian van der Brug / Pool via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Curious about Curiosity

    Jasper Goldberg and Andreas Bastian, both 22, watch live NASA coverage of Curiosity's descent to Mars on the giant video screen in New York's Times Square. (Andrew Burton / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Watching and waiting

    Steve Collins waits for word at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's mission control room during the "seven minutes of terror" as Curiosity approaches the surface of Mars on Aug. 5. Collins was working at JPL in 1993 when NASA's Mars Observer probe was lost just before its scheduled arrival at the Red Planet. (Fred Prouser / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Touchdown!

    The Mars Science Laboratory team in the Mission Support Area at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory reacts after learning that the Curiosity rover has landed safely on Mars. The happy news came at 10:31 p.m. PT Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. ET Aug. 6). (Bill Ingalls / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. From Mars to Times Square

    Spectators in New York's Times Square cheer the announcement that NASA's Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars. (Peter Foley / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Great catch!

    As it flew high above, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this picture of the Curiosity rover and its parachute descending to the Martian surface on Aug. 5. The inset image has been processed to bring out additional detail in the view of the rover and the chute. (NASA / JPL-Caltech via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Flying saucer

    A color image shows the Mars Science Laboratory's heat shield, as seen by a camera on the Curiosity rover during the spacecraft's descent on Aug. 5. The picture was obtained by the Mars Descent Imager instrument, also known as MARDI, and shows the 15-foot (4.5-meter) diameter heat shield when it was flying away 50 feet (16 meters) below the spacecraft. This image shows the inside surface of the heat shield, with its protective multilayered insulation. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The mountain ahead

    One of the first views from NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars on Aug. 5, shows the rover's shadow in the foreground and a 3-mile-high mountain known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp in the distance. That mountain is the rover's eventual destination. The picture was taken through a "fisheye" wide-angle lens by one of the rover's hazard avoidance cameras. (NASA / JPL-Caltech via AFP - Getty) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Miles and miles on Mars

    This image, released on Aug. 9, shows part of the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover as seen by one of the rover's navigation cameras. The rover's pointy low-gain antenna and its paddle-shaped high-gain antenna are among the pieces of hardware visible in the foreground. The rim of Gale Crater can be seen at the horizon. (NASA / JPL-Caltech via AFP - Getty) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Curiosity's crime scene

    The four main pieces of hardware that arrived on Mars with NASA's Curiosity rover are pinpointed in this image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, taken 24 hours after landing. The heat shield was the first piece to hit the ground, followed by the back shell attached to the parachute. The rover itself was lowered to the ground on cables by its rocket-powered sky crane. The cables were cut, and then the sky crane flew away to its own crash landing. (NASA / JPL-Caltech via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. What a blast!

    This is a portion of the first 360-degree black-and-white panoramic view acquired by the navigation cameras aboard NASA's Curiosity rover. Two disturbed areas are visible in the foreground, where the rocket thrusters on Curiosity's sky crane blasted away the surface gravel to reveal bedrock below. The high country of Gale Crater's rim can be seen in the distance. (NASA / JPL-Caltech via AFP - Getty) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. First color picture

    An image from the Curiosity rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, provides the first color view of the north wall and rim of Gale Crater. The picture was taken by the MAHLI camera at the end of Curiosity's stowed robotic arm. The view appears fuzzy because of the dust that has settled on the camera's removable cover. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mars in living color

    A color image from NASA's Curiosity Rover shows the pebble-covered surface of Mars. This is a portion of the first color 360-degree panorama from NASA's Curiosity rover, made up of thumbnails, which are small copies of higher-resolution images. The mission's destination, a mountain at the center of Gale Crater called Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp, can be seen in the distance rising up toward the left. Blast marks from the rover's descent stage are in the foreground. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Pew-pew

    This composite image, with magnified insets, shows the results of the first laser test by the ChemCam instrument aboard NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars. The composite incorporates a Navcam image taken prior to the test, with insets taken by the camera in ChemCam. The circular insert highlights the rock before the laser test. The square inset is further magnified and processed to show the effect of the laser blasts on Aug. 19. (LANL / MSSS / JPL-Caltech / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Looking ahead

    The Mars Curiosity rover's robotic arm takes aim at Mount Sharp in a mosaic that combines navigation-camera imagery from Sols 2, 12 and 14 (Aug. 8, 18 and 20). Mount Sharp, also known as Aeolis Mons, is a 3-mile-high mountain within Gale Crater that will be the rover's ultimate destination. (Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer / JPL-Caltech / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Future mapped out

    NASA's Curiosity rover landed inside Gale Crater at the green dot, within the Yellowknife quadrangle, on Aug. 5. The team has decided to send it first to the region marked by a blue dot, that is nicknamed Glenelg. That area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain. Then the rover will aim for the blue spot marked "Base of Mt. Sharp," where a natural break in Martian sand dunes will provide an opening for Curiosity to begin scaling the lower reaches of Mount Sharp. (Univ. of Ariz. / JPL-Caltech / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. First steps

    Curiosity's navigation camera system looks back at the wheel tracks from the rover's first test drive on Aug. 22. The $2.5 billion rover made its first moves a little more than two weeks after its arrival on Mars. (JPL-Caltech / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mount Sharp

    Mount Sharp is seen in the distance in an image taken Aug. 23 by the 34-millimeter Mast Camera on Curiosity. The gravelly area around Curiosity's landing site is visible in the foreground. Farther away, about a third of the way up from the bottom of the image, the terrain falls off into a depression (a swale). Beyond the swale, in the middle of the image, is the boulder-strewn, red-brown rim of a moderately-sized impact crater. Father off in the distance, there are dark dunes and then the layered rock at the base of Mount Sharp. Some haze obscures the view, but the top ridge, depicted in this image, is 10 miles (16.2 kilometers) away. Scientists enhanced the color to show the Martian scene under the lighting conditions we have on Earth. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Hip-hop on Mars

    Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas sings at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Aug. 28. Will.i.am's "Reach for the Stars" officially became the first song broadcast from Mars, thanks to a signal beamed from Curiosity. (Nick Ut / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Mmm, Marsberries!

    Small spherical objects fill the field in this Martian mosaic combining four images from the Microscopic Imager on NASA's Opportunity rover. The Sept. 6 view covers an area about 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) across, at an outcrop called Kirkwood in the Cape York segment of the western rim of Mars' Endeavour Crater. Shortly after its landing in 2004, Opportunity spotted similar spherules that were nicknamed "blueberries," but these berries are not as rich in iron, posing a scientific puzzle. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ USGS/Modesto Junior College via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. 'Do I look fat?' Curiosity checks its belly

    A mosaic of photos taken on Sept. 9 by the Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA's Curiosity rover shows the underside of the rover and its six wheels, with Martian terrain stretching back to the horizon. The four circular features on the front edge of the rover are the lenses for the left and right sets of Curiosity's hazard avoidance cameras, or Hazcams. Because of the different perspectives used for different images, some of the borders of the photos don't line up precisely. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A Martian rock called Jake

    NASA's Curiosity rover stopped about 8 feet (2.5 meters) in front of this Red Planet rock on Sept. 19, the mission's 43rd Martian day, or sol. The pyramid-shaped chunk was the first rock that the Curiosity rover touched for science's sake. It was named "Jake Matijevic" in honor of a top engineer who worked on every one of NASA's rover missions — but passed away just days after Curiosity's landing. Jake the rock, which measures about 10 inches (25 centimeters) tall, provided a good reference point for the rover's sophisticated instruments. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Rover's footprint

    NASA's Curiosity rover cut a wheel scuff mark into a wind-formed ripple at the "Rocknest" site on Mars to give researchers a better opportunity to examine the particle-size distribution of the material forming the ripple. The rover's right navigation camera took this image of the scuff mark on the mission's 57th Martian day, or sol (Oct. 3), the same sol that a wheel created the mark. For scale, the width of the wheel track is about 16 inches (40 centimeters). (Handout / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Rover's self-portrait

    The Curiosity rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture the set of thumbnail images stitched together to create this full-color self-portrait in this Oct. 31, 2012 image from NASA. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Life on Mars?

    The first sample of powdered rock extracted by the drill of Curiosity is seen on Feb. 20, 2013. Powder drilled out of a rock on Mars contains the best evidence yet that the Red Planet could have supported living microbes billions of years ago, the team behind NASA's Curiosity rover said March 12, 2013.

    Curiosity rover sees life-friendly conditions in ancient Mars rock. (NASA/JPL/Caltech/MSSS via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. The big picture

    This picture isn't from the Curiosity rover - it's a 2003 image from the Hubble Space Telescope, showing the full disk of Mars. The big picture hints at how much we'll be learning about the Red Planet during Curiosity's two-year, $2.5 billion mission. And that's just the beginning: Scientists hope the nuclear-powered rover will last years or even decades longer. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab Holds Viewing Of Mars Curiosity Rover Landing
    NASA via Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (28) Curiosity's space odyssey to Mars
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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