Curiosity Surveys a Martian 'Mojave Desert': Big Pic

Aug. 8, 2012 — NASA's new Mars rover Curiosity, which aced its landing early Monday, continues to impress scientists during the early checkout and commissioning phase of its planned two-year mission.

On Wednesday, scientists unveiled the rover's first two full-frame images including a stunning panorama of the northern wall and rim of Gale Crater, Curiosity's new home.

WIDE ANGLE: Curiosity Has Landed On Mars

"The first impression you get is how Earth-like this seems," lead scientist John Grotzinger told reporters Wednesday.

"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 LA smog coming in there," he said.

The rover is positioned near a pebble-strewn fan-shaped region, which on Earth is formed by downhill flowing water.

Scientists believe the same phenomena carved the feature on Mars, a theory that will be investigated once Curiosity's science mission begins in earnest.

The focal point of the $2.5 billion mission is to explore a three-mile high mound of sediment in the center of the crater. But the mound, called Mount Sharp, is far from the only area of interest.

BIG PIC: Mars Rover Curiosity Raises its Head

"The sedimentary materials (near the rover's landing site) are derived from erosion of those mountains there," Grotzinger said, referring to the crater's eroded northern wall as "a watershed that delivered those materials."

Mid-way in the image are dark-looking ridges between 3 feet (0.9 meters) and 10 feet (3 meters) in height.

"We have no idea what those really are," Grotzinger said, adding that they were related to exposed bedrock.

Finally, in the foreground is an interesting feature that wasn't there before Curiosity's landing — scour marks made from the rover's descent thrusters.

"We got some free trenching," Grotzinger said.

The rocket exhaust dusted off two areas about 1.5 feet in width, exposing bedrock beneath the topsoil.

BIG PIC: Curiosity Snaps its First Color Photo of Mars

"We're looking for diversity of materials, so here we see our first glimpse of bedrock. Apparently, there is a harder, rockier material beneath this veneer of gravel and pebbles. We're already getting a glimpse of the subsurface," Grotzinger said.

Once Curiosity starts roving, scientists may decide to get a chemical analysis of the bedrock. "Here we have an exploration hole drilled for us," Grotzinger said.

The primary goal of the mission is to look for environments and conditions that could have supported microbial life.

The image was taken with the rover's navigation camera, located on Curiosity's mast. A higher-resolution picture is expected soon.

-- By Irene Klotz