NASA's Curiosity rover has beamed back the first detailed image of the foothills of Mount Sharp, its eventual destination during its two-year mission on Mars.

Speaking from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Curisoity project scientist John Grotzinger called it a "thrilling image."

"What's really cool about this topography us that the crater rim kind of looks like the Mojave desert, and now what you see here kind of looks like the Four Corners area of the western U.S.," Grotzinger said, referring to a region known for its hills, buttes, mesas and canyons.

"There's just a rich diversity over there," he said. "There are hills the size of multistory buildings [at the lower reaches of Mount Sharp]. It's a spectacular terrain and that's where we're going be headed one day."

Last week, NASA released the first colour panoramic photograph of the Mars terrain taken by Curiosity.

Curiosity is currently about seven kilometers away from the base of the mound, inside Gale Crater, where it landed on Aug. 6. Since then, NASA's engineering team has been running tests to ensure the rover's tools are working properly.

All of the instruments have so far checked out, Grotzinger said.

If everything continues to go according to plan, the rover will begin climbing Mount Sharp in six months. There, scientists will examine what they believe are hydrated minerals, based on orbiter observations.

NASA hopes the $2.6-billion project will provide clues to help unlock the mystery of whether life ever existed or could be sustained on Mars.

Canadian connection

But before Curiosity begins its trek to the hills, it has a few stops to make.

Once it leaves the landing site, the rover will drive to an area that NASA has nicknamed Glenelg, a name chosen because it is a palindrome. 

"Once we get done with the science, we're going to have to get through there again," Grotzinger explained. "So we get it both coming and going."

The name was picked from a list the NASA team has created of about 100 names of rock formations in Northern Canada. Curiosity's landing site was named Yellowknife in honour of the ancient rock surrounding the N.W.T. capital.

The scour marks where rocket engine blasts blew away surface material during the rover's descent also received Canadian designations: Goulburn, Hepburn, Burnside and Sleepy Dragon.

Before Curiosity hits the road, engineers will spend the next few days testing and calibrating its cameras and laser equipment. 

Once completed, Grotzinger expects to reach Glenelg within the next two months. If the rover encounters soil along the way that is sufficient for testing, it will stop to perform science experiments.

"Sometime toward the end of the calendar year roughly," said Grotzinger. "I would guess then we would turn our sights toward the trek to Mount Sharp."