If you could pull up a 3-mile-high mountain from Mars and plop it down in California's Mojave Desert, it'd probably look much like this latest color panorama from the Curiosity rover's science team. This little piece from the panorama doesn't do justice to the whole picture: You really should see the whole thing at high resolution to get a sense of just how much Mount Sharp, a.k.a. Aeolis Mons, looms over the scene where NASA's six-wheeled robotic lab has been working.
The most jarring thing about the picture is the blue sky. No, the Martian sky doesn't really look like that. The Red Planet's atmosphere is filled with iron-rich dust that turns everything into shades of butterscotch, burnt orange and brick. To see Mount Sharp as you or your smartphone camera might see it if you were actually there, check out this true-color version of the panorama.
The blue-sky version has been processed to reflect a white-balanced view, as if the picture were taken in an earthly rather than a Martian setting. Why would scientists bother with a phony view of Mars? "White-balancing helps scientists recognize rock materials based on their experience looking at rocks on Earth," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains in Friday's photo advisory. It's as if Curiosity was able to get rid of all that red dust in the air and take a clear picture of the mountainside from miles away.
The pictures for this panorama was taken in September, while the rover was en route to its first destination. For the past couple of months, Curiosity has been studying the rocks at a site known as Yellowknife Bay, and it's already turned up some amazing discoveries about Mars' past — including evidence that the area was capable of supporting microbial life billions of years ago.
Within the next couple of months, Curiosity is due to turn around and begin its 6-mile (10-kilometer) trek to the foothills of that big mountain. Pictures like this panorama will help scientists figure out exactly where their nuclear-powered robotic geologist should be going.
More about Mars:
- Martian rock reveals life-friendly conditions
- What's next for Mars Curiosity rover
- NBC News archive on 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 NBCNews.com's other science coverage, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.