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Curiouser and curiouser: Earth-like terrain in Mars rover images

August 08, 2012|By Amina Khan | Los Angeles Times
  • This full-resolution color image shows the heat shield of NASA's Curiosity rover, snapped by the Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, during the rover's journey to the Martian surface Sunday night.
This full-resolution color image shows the heat shield of NASA's… (NASA / AFP/Getty Images )

Images from the latest Mars rover’s navigation cameras reveal a remarkably familiar landscape -- one that looks like the California desert.

Black-and-white photos stitched together from the Curiosity rover’s Navcams show gravelly terrain with what looks like well-cut, pyramidal mountains in the background – the kind of terrain found in the Mojave, said John Grotzinger, lead scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

The familiar ground “kind of makes you feel at home,” Grotzinger said at a Wednesday news conference.

Curiosity’s ultimate goal is Mt. Sharp, a mountain several miles away in the middle of Gale Crater.  But the rover's landing spot near the edge of the crater has proved to be interesting in its own right. Scientists have picked up evidence of an alluvial fan – a water-caused feature found on hill slopes on Earth.

“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 – a little L.A. smog coming in there,” Grotzinger joked. 

Recent discoveries were filled with other pleasant surprises. Mike Malin, lead scientist for the rover's MARDI descent imager, revealed a new, higher-resolution shot of the heat shield in midflight – in shining detail showcasing the stitching in the shield’s thermal blanket and drawing gasps from Wednesday's audience.

“You’ve been hearing us saying, ‘Just wait till you see the good stuff.’ Well, this is the good stuff,” Malin said.

Malin, who also works on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, pointed out a colleague’s find from the satellite: Six dark spots showing the final resting place of the rover spacecraft’s half-dozen, 55-pound tungsten slugs jettisoned before its supersonic parachute deployed.

Finding the slugs will help scientists better understand how inert objects fall, Malin said.

The rover won’t be taking off for Mt. Sharp for a few days yet; in the meantime, scientists are keeping an open mind about the landing spot.

When Grotzinger was asked if there was possibly gypsum in the shown image – a sign that water had been present – the Caltech geologist said, “Sure, why not? ... That’s an entirely reasonable suggestion.”

The scientists hope to release color images from the Mast Camera over the coming days.

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