Sep. 8, 2012 at 2:56 AM ET
Anyone who's taken his or her own picture for a Facebook profile page will know how tricky it is to do what NASA's Curiosity rover just did: It turned one of its 17 cameras around on itself and took a snapshot of its very own "face on Mars."
The picture, which was sent down from Mars just a few hours ago, comes from the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, a camera mounted on the end of Curiosity's jointed, 7-foot-long (2.1-meter-long) robotic arm. The top of the rover's mast — the face — is front and center, with the Martian horizon in the far background.
The biggest "eye" on the face is the lens for the ChemCam instrument, which can shoot out a laser beam to vaporize rock and read the chemical signature contained in the resulting flash of light. Two square eyes below the big lens represent the two cameras of the color Mastcam imaging system. Four smaller round eyes, two on each side, are the high-resolution, black-and-white Navcam imagers.
We've seen pictures from all those instruments in the month since Curiosity's Aug. 5 landing, but this is the first picture looking back at the instruments themselves. The only view we've previously gotten of the mast is the shadow that it cast on the Martian surface.
The picture has a reddish cast because it was taken through MAHLI's dust-coated lens cover. (You can see the turnaround image of MAHLI, as seen by Mastcam, at the top of this story.) The Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla, who processed the MAHLI image for her blog, has adjusted the contrast, coloring and composition to produce a balanced, beautiful picture for Curiosity's profile page.
Her blog entry also includes a must-see LOL version of the picture, which plays off the fact that ChemCam has been doing some "lazrin" lately — be sure to check the posting for that shot as well as other goodies. And stay tuned for even sharper self-portraits over the months to come.
Curiosity's two-year, $2.5 billion primary mission in Gale Crater is aimed at teasing out the geological record over billions of years on Mars, and figuring out whether the Red Planet had the carbon-based chemistry that's conducive to life. Right now, the rover is heading for a geologically interesting spot called Glenelg, but eventually it will make its way toward the flanks of a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp. To learn more about Curiosity and its mission, follow these links:
More about the Curiosity mission:
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 NBCNews.com's 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 controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.