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."
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:
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- Flying saucer spotted over Mars
- First 3-D pictures sent by Curiosity
- Orbital photo spots rover and its trash
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- Rover video looks down on Mars during landing
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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.