Rover sends new photos of Mars surface

August 8, 2012

PASADENA -- All basic systems on the Mars rover Curiosity are in good working order, and cameras have begun to send back photos showing a somewhat Earth-like environment, NASA officials said Wednesday.

Jennifer Trosper, project systems manager with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the rover has deployed its seven-foot mast, which holds cameras and science and communications instruments. She said the rover has established full communications with Earth and has more power output than expected.

“The rover works perfectly,” she said.

At a JPL press conference, Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger compared one of the new images sent from Mars to the Mojave Desert.

“It’s quite an experience to be looking at a place that feels really comfortable” and familiar, he said. “What’s going to be interesting is finding out all the ways that it’s different.”

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater, which offers opportunities for research that hasn’t been possible on Mars. Scientists know that the crater was covered with water in the past, and the rover itself may well be sitting on the edge of what was once a river delta. Three-mile high Mount Sharp also sits in the midst of the 100 miles in diameter crater, and will be a major focus of the mission.

High-resolution close-up images released Wednesday also show what appear to be pebbles and gravel over a layer of what scientist believe is bedrock. One set of images also shows a small nearby indentation with exposed rock.

“You can see a harder, rocky surface under gravel and pebbles,” Grotzinger said, indicating that the site could become the rover’s first destination.

The Curiosity team expects to spend one to two weeks checking out the basic systems of the rover - the most complex ever sent to another planet - seeing if the 10 science instruments on board are in working order, and switching to a different software system.

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater, which offers opportunities for research that haven’t been available on Mars before.

The ability of the rover to move may be tested during this time, Grotzinger said, but no firm decisions have been made as the vehicle and its environment are checked out.

While some of the new Mars images are striking, the lead of the Curiosity film and photography team, Michael Malin, said that far more precise and dramatic images will come when the more powerful cameras are deployed.

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