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Panorama reveals a colorful Mars

Scientists say the first 360-degree color panorama photo sent from Mars by NASA's Curiosity rover reveals an unusual amount of variation, including dark dunes, red soil and tan rocks. And they can hardly wait to sample the material behind all those colors.

The picture unveiled today at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., isn't the best imagery that the rover's Mastcam is capable of. It was put together from 130 images, each measuring a mere 144 by 144 pixels. The high-resolution version goes eight times wider, but that also means it's a much bigger load of data. Curiosity just hasn't had the bandwidth to send it yet.

Much better panoramas will be coming from Curiosity's stomping grounds in Gale Crater over the next couple of years, said Michael Malin of San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems, the principal investigator for the two-camera Mastcam system. But for a low-resolution "random shot," the picture released today isn't so bad.

"This was pretty enough and interesting enough that we thought it was worth sharing with you guys," Malin told reporters.

The Mastcam panorama, along with a higher-resolution panorama taken in black and white by the rover's navigation cameras, show the intriguing blast marks left behind by the rover's sky-crane descent stage, just yards away from the landing site. They also show the foothills of a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain, more than 4 miles (6 kilometers away).

"These beautiful knolls of layered rocks, and those layers, are what's recording history at Gale Crater," said Dawn Sumner, a member of the Curiosity science team from the University of California at Davis.

The prime objective of the $2.5 billion Curiosity mission is to document billions of years of geological change on Mars by analyzing the layers of rock at that mountain, known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp. It could take more than a year for Curiosity to get to the mountainside, because researchers intend to take their time analyzing the rocks along the way. Curiosity's primary mission is scheduled to last a complete Martian year, or two Earth years, but scientists hope the nuclear-powered rover will last much longer than that.

Eventually, Curiosity's chemical analysis could tell scientists whether Mars was potentially habitable in ancient times, when there was enough water to deposit sediment inside the 96-mile-wide (154-mile-wide) crater.

Eager to use the laser

Curiosity is equipped with 10 scientific instruments to tackle the challenge, including an onboard chemistry lab and a device known as ChemCam, which can shoot a laser at rocks and read the chemical signature that's encoded in the light that's given off. One of the first targets may well be the blast marks created during Sunday's landing. After Curiosity touched down, its rocket-powered sky crane blasted itself back into the air and crash-landed more than half a mile away. The exhaust from the sky crane's thrusters scoured away gravelly soil on the surface and exposed the bedrock underneath.

"There's an awful lot of eagerness to know what the composition of those rocks are," Sumner said, "and to use our laser."

Malin said the color panorama seemed to be, well, more colorful than the typical imagery from previous rovers, including the Opportunity rover, which is still at work on the other side of the Red Planet. "Some of the coloration we're seeing here really has to do with the sand dunes," he said. "There's dark sand, there's the red dust, and then there's the substrate rock, which is tan. ... The way dust and sand are trapped by a surface will also change their color. So I can't say it's a more colorful or diverse site just based on the photometry or the colorimetry, but obviously, geomorphically it's a very diverse place."

Flawless rover, flawless team

Mission manager Mike Watkins said the Curiosity team is continuing to check out the six-wheeled rover's scientific instruments, in preparation for its first drive sometime in the next few weeks. "Curiosity continues to behave flawlessly. ... The team operating Curiosity also is performing basically flawlessly," he said.

One surprise turned up in the latest batch of high-resolution images taken by the navigation cameras: The deck of the rover was littered with dark pebbles that were apparently thrown up during Sunday's landing. "They pose no problems for operations ... but it's a little unexpected that it is there," Watkins said.

The team that managed Curiosity's flawless entry, descent and landing is taking a closer look at the pebble issue. "They need a problem to go start working on, right? So this is something for them to do," Watkins joked.

Over the next couple of days, the team will be "standing down from science" while Curiosity's electronic brain is reprogrammed with software that's more tailored for surface operations, Watkins said. "Sometimes you're stuck in this mode where you have the old software on part of your computer, and the new software on part, and we didn't want to start trying to execute other complex activities in the middle of that," he explained.

That prompted a joke from Malin about his own computer acumen: "I sure hope he does better than what I've done on my machines."

Other angles from Mars:

  • Watkins said the team has been gradually raising the data transmission rate from Mars, starting with 8 kilobits per second to the current rate of a few hundred kilobits per second. In about a week, the transmission rate could reach 2 megabits per second, he said.
  • Sumner said that Curiosity's surroundings have been mapped onto a navigation grid that is divided into "quads," with each quad measuring about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometers) square. The rover happened to land in Quad 51, which led to a string of conspiracy-theory jokes. Even the official Twitter account for @MarsCuriosity got in on the fun: "Area 51? No, Quad 51 is where I landed on Mars. ... (PS - I come in peace)." Quad 51 is also known by the nickname Yellowknife, which refers to the frontier town in Canada's Northwest Territories. Sumner said the "beautiful knolls" that are visible in the panoramas released today lie in Quads 120, 121, 134 and 135.
  • Pictures of the Curiosity's wheels brought another in-joke to light: The treads are molded with a pattern of dots and dashes that spell out the initials of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ("JPL") in Morse code (dot-dash-dash-dash, dot-dash-dash-dot, dot-dash-dot-dot). The arrangement is more than a joke: As the rover travels, its cameras can read the asymmetrical pattern left behind in the Martian soil to determine exactly how far it's traveled, and whether there's been any slippage along the way. The Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla spelled out the significance in a blog posting last year. To which I can only say: ·—— ——— ·——

Still more from Mars:

Alan Boyle is'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'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.