PASADENA, Calif. - The ancient Martian crater where the Curiosity rover landed looks strikingly similar to the Mojave Desert in California with its looming mountains and hanging haze, scientists said Wednesday.
"The first impression that you get is how Earthlike this seems, looking at that landscape," said chief scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology.
Overnight, the car-size rover poked its head out for the first time since settling in Gale Crater, peered around and returned a black-and-white self-portrait and panorama that's still being processed.
It provided the best view yet of its destination since Sunday night after nailing an intricate landing choreography. During the last few seconds, a rocket-powered spacecraft hovered as cables lowered Curiosity to the ground.
In the latest photos, Curiosity looked out toward the northern horizon. Nearby were scour marks in the surface blasted by thrusters, which kicked up a swirl of dust. There were concerns that Curiosity got dusty, but scientists said that was not the case.
"We do see a thin coating of dust, but nothing too bad," said Justin Maki, imaging scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $2.5 billion mission.
Scientists were giddy about the scour marks because they exposed bedrock below - information that should help them better understand the landing site.
Since landing, Curiosity has zipped home a stream of low-resolution pictures taken by tiny cameras under the chassis and a camera at the end of its robotic arm, which remained stowed. It also sent back a low-quality video showing the last 2 1/2 minutes of its descent.
The rover successfully raised its mast packed with high-resolution and navigation cameras. With the mast up, it can begin its shutterbug days in force, including taking a 360-degree color view of its surroundings as early as today.
Grotzinger said he was struck by the Martian landscape, which appeared diverse. There seemed to be harder material underneath the gravelly surface, he said.
"It kind of makes you feel at home," he said. "We're looking at a place that feels really comfortable."
Mars, of course, is very different from Earth. It's a frigid desert constantly bombarded by radiation. There are geological signs that it was a warmer and wetter place once upon a time. One of the mission's goals is to figure out how Mars transformed.
After sailing 352 million miles over eight months, Curiosity parked its six wheels near the Martian equator, where it will spend the next two years poking into rocks and soil in search of the chemical ingredients of life. It is the most expensive and ambitious mission yet to Mars.
On StarNet: See photos of the landing celebrations at azstarnet.com/gallery
What's that blotch?
Did Curiosity capture the galactic equivalent of the Zapruder film when it landed on Mars?
Seconds after the NASA robot's landing Sunday night, Curiosity squeezed off a few black-and-white photographs. One, taken with a device on its rear known as a Hazcam, captured the pebble-strewn ground beneath the rover and one of its wheels - and a blotch, faint but distinctive, on the horizon.
The images were relayed by a passing satellite. Two hours later, the satellite passed overhead again. This time, Curiosity sent home a new batch of photos. They showed the same horizon.
The blotch was gone.
Could it be the "sky crane" that had lowered the rover as it crashed onto the Martian surface? The blotch did look like a billowing plume erupting from the horizon. But most dismissed that speculation as a statistical impossibility.
But Tuesday, engineers received a new image of the landing zone, taken by satellite. This photo was labeled the "crime scene" photo because it not only showed Curiosity on the ground, but all of the pieces of spacecraft that the rover had discarded on the way down.
To the southwest was the parachute that had taken Curiosity out of free fall, and was then jettisoned.
The crime scene photo showed that the sky crane had crash-landed, as designed, about 2,000 feet away - and in the direction Curiosity's rear was pointed toward when it snapped the photo showing the blotch. The new photo also showed that the sky crane, when it crash-landed, had kicked up a violent wave of dirt.
- Los Angeles Times