One of the first images from the camera atop the rover Curiosity's mast shows a Mars landscape that scientists called remarkably Earth-like, as if NASA 'put a rover out in the Mojave Desert.'
It could be an old postcard from Earth – a detailed black-and-white picture showing a barren, subtly undulating landscape stretching to a mountain range in the distance.
Looking at the scene, "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," complete with "a little L.A. smog coming in there," quips John Grotzinger, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the Mars Science Laboratory mission's project scientist.
But this isn't the Mojave. It's Mars. Specifically, the interior of Gale Crater, with the crater's north rim rising in the distance.
As it examined the photo, the science team marveled at how Earth-like the scene appears, Dr. Grotzinger says. It's among the first images from the navigation camera mounted atop the rover's newly erected mast.
The scene's familiarity hints at why NASA is spending $2.5 billion on the Mars Science Laboratory mission. Mars is Earth-like in many ways, but seemingly is barren of life. Curiosity is designed to help scientists determine whether, in Mars’ distant past, this 3-billion to 4-billion-year-old crater hosted an environment where life could have gained a foothold.