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Curiosity takes a first look around Mars

7:05 AM, Aug 9, 2012   |    comments
A camera on the Curiosity rover shows the shadow of the rover's now-upright mast in the center, and the arm's shadow at left. The navigation camera is used to help find the sun.
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PASADENA, Calif. - The Mars rover Curiosity took a first gander around its neighborhood and found it looks just like home, officials said 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," project scientist John Grotzinger said.

"The first impression you get is how Earth-like this seems looking at that landscape," he said.

Launched in November from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the car-size rover landed Monday inside the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater, just south of the equator on the eastern side of the planet.

Four navigation cameras at the top of Curiosity's raised mast took a 360-degree look around on Tuesday, imaging the rover's deck as well as its surroundings. The cameras captured a view of Aeolis Palus, a pebble-strewn plain between the northern wall of the crater and Aeolis Mons, an 18,000-foot-tall mountain taller than any in the United States outside Alaska.

Right next to the rover are small depressions dug out by retrorockets on the descent stage that lowered Curiosity to the ground.

"What's cool about this is that we got some free trenching," Grotzinger said. "Here we get a freebie right off the bat."

Right below the soil is bedrock.

Curiosity is in what engineers call its commissioning phase, a time where all of its systems and instruments are checked out. The real scientific work - determining whether Mars was habitable - begins in a few weeks, and the $2.5 billion mission is expected to continue for at least two years.

A full color, high-resolution 360-degree view from Curiosity's more powerful Mastcams - two megapixel cameras that serve as the rover's left and right eyes - is expected by week's end.

The panorama will show a region "that actually looks very Mars-like, but it also looks Earth-like with those mountains in the background there, these deeply dissected pyramidal mountain ranges, and it just looks a lot like what you see out in the Mojave Desert," Grotzinger said.

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