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Mars rover: Color panorama of crater brings scientific treasure into view (+video)

The rover Curiosity has provided NASA scientists with its first full-circle panorama of the Gale Crater. In the distance beckon hills whose rocks hold a trove of information: Mars' climate history.

The Mars rover "Curiosity" is taking phenomenal photos, including a panorama shot.
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NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has returned the first full-circle color panorama of its landing site in Gale Crater, providing scientists with the first on-the-ground look at their ultimate destination – distant knolls and layered rock formations at the base of Mt. Sharp.

Mt. Sharp, the informal name given to a mountain that rises nearly 16,000 feet above the crater floor, has a treasure-trove of information – Mars’ climate history – locked up in its rocks, researchers say.

Most important, they say, the rocks hold clues as to whether the 3-billion to 4-billion-year-old crater might have hosted conditions favorable for the emergence of life early in the planet's history.

The color panorama was built from low-resolution thumbnail images taken by MastCam, one of three camera systems perched 7 feet above the Martian surface atop Curiosity's mast. Some 20 to 24 of the larger, higher resolution images that will begin building the next panorama are expected to arrive on Friday.

Still, the preview drew an enthusiast welcome from Dawn Sumner, a geologist at the University of California at Davis and a member of the science team using the high-resolution camera. The camera is being used to scout new rocks and soil deposits for close-up analysis.

The rock layers "are recording the history in Gale Crater, and they are the main reason we chose Gale Crater – to study those rocks," she said in a briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Thursday. "It's very exciting to think about getting there."

Starting Saturday, engineers will spend four days replacing the software that governed the rover during its landing on Mars to a software package that will govern it during its two-year mission at Gale Crater.

Once the software has been swapped, flight controllers will download the remaining high-resolution color images researchers will use to build their detailed portrait of the rover's new surroundings.


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