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Postcards from Mars reveal Martian bedrock (+video)

A panoramic view of Mars sent back to Earth from NASA's Curiosity rover shows a terrain scientists describe as similar to the Mojave Desert in Southern California. Curiosity will begin a four-day software upgrade over the weekend. 

The Mars rover "Curiosity" is taking phenomenal photos, including a panorama shot.
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The science rover Curiosity took a break from instrument checks on its third full day on Mars to beam back more pictures from the Red Planet, including its first self-portrait and a 360-degree color view of its home in Gale Crater, NASA said on Thursday.

The panoramic mosaic, comprising 130 separate images that Curiosity captured with its newly activated navigation cameras, shows a rust-colored, pebble-strewn expanse stretching to a wall of the crater's rim in one direction and a tall mound of layered rock in another.

That formation, named Mount Sharp, stands at the center of the vast, ancient impact crater and several miles from where Curiosity touched down at the end of an eight-month voyage across 352 million mile (566 million km) of space.

The layers of exposed rock are thought to hold a wealth of Mars' geologic history, making it the main target of exploration for scientists who will use the rover to seek evidence of whether the planet most similar to Earth might now harbor or once have hosted key ingredients for microbial life.

But mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles are exercising caution immediately following Curiosity's jarring, death-defying descent to the surface on Sunday night.

They plan to spend weeks putting the nuclear-powered, six-wheeled rover and its sophisticated array of instruments through a painstaking series of "health" checks before embarking on the thrust of their science mission in earnest.

The $2.5 billion Curiosity project, formally named the Mars Science Laboratory, is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the Viking probes of the 1970s and is touted as the first fully equipped mobile geochemistry lab ever sent to a distant world.

Equipment Checkups 

After three full days on the Red Planet, "Curiosity continues to behave flawlessly" and has "executed all planned activities" without a hitch, mission manager Michael Watkins said at a JPL news briefing.

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