Curiosity Rover Eyes Huge Mars Mountain in Amazing Photos

SPACE.com

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has captured a stunningly detailed panorama of the giant Red Planet mountain that is the robot's ultimate science destination. 

Rover team members assembled the view of Mount Sharp, which rises more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, from dozens of telephoto images Curiosity took last year on Sept. 20. NASA unveiled the image on Friday (March 15).

Researchers put together two versions of the mosaic. One is in raw color, showing Mount Sharp as it would look in a photo snapped by a normal digital camera. The other has been "white-balanced," providing a view of the scene as it would look under Earthlike lighting, complete with a familiar blue sky.

"White-balanced versions help scientists recognize rock materials based on their terrestrial experience," NASA officials wrote Friday in a description of the Mount Sharp panorama. "The Martian sky would look like more of a butterscotch color to the human eye." [Curiosity's Latest Mars Photos]

Both versions of the mosaic are available with pan and zoom functionality at the high-resolution site GigaPan. Go to http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/125627 for the white-balanced view and http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/125628 for the raw-color version.

Mount Sharp rises from the center of the 100-mile-wide (160 km) Gale Crater, where the car-size Curiosity rover touched down last August. Scientists aren't sure how the big mountain formed, for there's nothing quite like it on Earth.

The mountain's base shows signs of long-ago exposure to liquid water, and its many layers contain a record of how Mars' environmental conditions have changed over time. Curiosity scientists hope the six-wheeled robot can read these layers like a book as it climbs up through Mount Sharp's foothills.

The Curiosity team is committed to going to Mount Sharp, but the robot won't begin the 6-mile (10 km) trek for at least another few months. Curiosity still has some work to do at a site called Yellowknife Bay, which rover scientists announced last week could have supported microbial life in the distant past.

Curiosity made this discovery after analyzing samples collected from a hole it drilled last month into a Yellowknife Bay rock. Researchers want to confirm and extend their observations by looking at material from a second drill hole in the area.

But more drilling activity won't start until May, team members said. That's because the rover is still fighting through a computer glitch that took out its main computer last month, and an unfavorable alignment of Earth, Mars and the sun will make it tough to communicate with Curiosity for much of April.

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