The latest images beamed back by NASA's Curiosity rover are revealing eerily "Earth-like" Martian terrain. John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology comments: "The first impression that you get is how Earth-like this seems."
Grotzinger, at a press conference on Wednesday, remarked how much the ancient Martian crater where Curiosity rover landed looks like the Mojave Desert in California with its mountains and haze. Grotzinger said that the Curiosity rover's Navcams reveal gravelly terrain that looks like the the kind of terrain found in the Mojave. The Los Angeles Times reports Grotzinger joked: “You would really be forgiven for thinking that NASA was trying to pull a fast one on you, and we actually put a rover out in the Mojave Desert and took a picture – a little L.A. smog coming in there."
One of the latest images NASA has released shows Curiosity looking out toward the Martian northern horizon (see image below). According to NASA, close to Curiosity are scour marks caused by blasts from the rover's thrusters. The scour marks have drawn scientific attention after exposing bedrock below.
Curiosity looking out toward the Martian northern horizon.
Grotzinger said scientists are struck by the Martian landscape that appears diverse. The scour marks reveal there is firm material beneath the surface. He said: "It kind of makes you feel at home. We're looking at a place that feels really comfortable."
The spot where the rover landed is yielding other interesting information to scientists. According to the Los Angeles Times, scientists have evidence of an alluvial fan in the area.
But in spite of scientists' emphasis on the similarities between the Martian terrain and the Earth's, the Martian environment is much different. The surface is exposed to intense radiation and it is mostly sterile desert far less diverse that the Earth's.
The image (see below) shows part of the first 360-degree panoramic view from NASA's Curiosity rover taken with its Navigation cameras.
"Part of the 360 degrees panoramic image"
Justin Maki, imaging scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, commenting on concerns that at landing, the thrusters got Curiosity dusty, said: "We do see a thin coating of dust, but nothing too bad." Scientists were able to observe the effect of landing dust from a self-portrait of Curiosity taken by its Navigation cameras located on its mast (see below).
Curiosity rover: A self portrait.
NASA has also revealed new images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera carried by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mike Watkins, mission manager for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA's Jet propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, said: "This latest image is another demonstration of the invaluable assistance the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team, and its sister team with the Mars Odyssey orbiter, have provided the Curiosity rover during our early days on the Red Planet. The image not only satisfies our curiosity, it can provide important information on how these vital components performed during entry, descent and landing, and exactly locate the rover's touchdown site within Gale Crater."
An artist's representation of Curiosity
NASA reports the image below was taken by the HiRISE camera after Curiosity landed on Mars with its components strewn across the landing area. To the right of the rover, about 1,500 meters (4,900 ft) away, is the discarded heat shield that protected it when entry friction generated heat of over 2,100 degrees Celsius (3,800-degree-Fahrenheit). To the left, about 615 meters away, are the parachute with a diameter of 21.5 meters (71 ft) and the back shell.
HiRISE image of Curiosity's landing site
Sarah Milkovich, HiRise investigation scientist at JPL, said: "This is the first of what I imagine will be many portraits HiRISE will be taking of Curiosity on the surface of Mars. The image was taken Monday at about 10:30 p.m. Pacific when MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) was at an altitude of about 186 miles (300 kilometers), and we are getting resolution on the surface down to 1.3 feet (39 cm) per pixel."
Curiosity will begin the trek to Mount Sharp in the middle of the Gale Crater. It is believed the rover landed four miles away from the base of Mount Sharp, thought to contain evidence of past water needed for microbial life to evolve.
Before the one-ton, nuclear-powered Curiosity can start roving, it has to undergo several weeks of exhaustive health checks. According to NASA, on Curiosity’s first Martian day (Sol 0), the rover tested its Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) and calibrated its Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), which, according to National Post, tests wind speed, direction and temperature. According to Space.com, the calibration did not work exactly as planned, but NASA’s REMS team hopes to correct the error soon.