NASA released new images of Mars from its Curiosity rover Wednesday as the mobile scientific laboratory set out to familiarize itself with its new home, three days after its closely watched arrival on the planet.
The photos included a low resolution black and white panoramic shot of Gale Crater that shows in greater detail what lies in front of Curiosity. The panoramic shot suggests Earth-like geological formations, such as what appeared to be cliffs and alluvial fans, in the distance.
"You would be forgiven if you thought that NASA was trying to pull a fast one on you in the Mojave desert," said John Grotzinger, project manager for the mission.
During the briefing from Curiosity's mission headquarters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., NASA said many pictures are still to come. The agency is particularly interested in seeing a new 360-degree panoramic shot that will be taken from one of the rover's high-resolution mast cameras.
The remote sensing mast, which houses seven of the rover's 17 cameras, has already been deployed successfully.
"Last night, the commands were sent to raise the mast," said David Beatey, NASA's chief Mars scientist.
"That's a big big deal, because there are two of the more important scientific instruments on the mast, one of them being a camera, and the other is this laser beam analyzer."
NASA also said it has worked out some problems with the rover's antenna that were hampering transmissions to Earth, and it's now looking forward to starting the third "sol" or Martian mission day.
"Sol two was executed on the rover and it was executed flawlessly," said NASA's Mars mission manager Jennifer Trosper. The rover is part of a $2.6 billion US mission that will determine whether the red planet has the conditions necessary to support life.
Clearer images coming
Tuesday saw the release of Curiosity's first colour image as well as a photo of where the rover landed and where it discarded the hardware it shed during the landing. The latter was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting and studying Mars since 2006 and caught Curiosity in the act of deploying its 45-kg parachute.
The colour photo of a dust-covered Mars landscape came from Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which sits on the end of one of Curiosity's robotic arms and gives the rover's operators a front-seat view of its environment.
The dust that was kicked up during the rover's high-speed landing on Mars made for a cloudy image, but NASA promised Tuesday that once the dust cover on the MAHLI is lifted and the other cameras are fully deployed, the rover will be transmitting much clearer images back to Earth.
The rover spent sol 2, its second Martian day, undergoing checkups and calibrations of its scientific instruments and cameras as well as testing its high-gain antenna.
NASA scientists also collected data from its radiation assessment detector.
It will spend the next few days undergoing further checks and preparing to explore the massive Gale crater in which it landed.
The 154-kilometre-wide crater is located near the equator of Mars, and Curiosity landed near the base of a mountain, informally called Mount Sharp, that rises five kilometres high from the middle of the crater.
NASA chose the crater as the destination for the rover in part because measurements from instruments orbiting Mars show that the bottom of the mountain contains layers of clay and sulphates — materials that form in water. Certain minerals found in clay and sulphates are good at preserving organic compounds that form the building blocks of life.
"One fascination with Gale is that it's a huge crater sitting in a very low-elevation position on Mars, and we all know that water runs downhill," John Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist at the California Institute of Technology, said in July 2011 when describing the choice of landing site for Curiosity.