Rover panorama: Begin exploring Mars

Explore the new Martian home of Nasa's Curiosity rover in this interactive impression of Gale Crater, a deep hole on the Red Planet's equator. The robot will spend at least the next two years looking for evidence that past environments on Mars could have supported simple lifeforms.

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An impression of the Curiosity rover and its Gale Crater landing site, built from a range of image sources

Mount Sharp

Skycrane

Mount Sharp (more formally called Aeolis Mons ) is a central peak that rises 5.5km from the floor of Gale Crater. It appears to have been built up from ancient sediments, some deposited during the phase of Martian history when liquid water flowed across the surface.

These conditions might have favoured the appearance of microbial life, so the peak is Curiosity's prime target for exploration. Nasa intends to drive the rover to the mountain in order to investigate its lower rock layers, but an extended mission of many years could see Curiosity climb high up its slopes.


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Dune fields

The dark bands beyond Curiosity's shadow are smooth dune fields that lie south of the rover's current location. These dunes lie in the way of the rover and the "geological sweet shop" of Mount Sharp - which is at a distance of six kilometres from the rover's landing site. Nasa will need to plot a course to Mount Sharp and has captured detailed images of the terrain from space using a camera aboard its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter probe.

Rocket's blast pattern

Skycrane

The Curiosity rover was lowered to a soft landing on the surface of Mars by a system known as the Skycrane. This used rockets to slow the rover's descent to Gale Crater, delivering it to the ground on three 8m-long tethers.

The Skycrane's rocket engines blasted away loose debris on the surface to expose underlying rocks, and created the two round marks you can see on the panorama. Of particular interest to scientists are the fragments of rock embedded in a matrix of finer material.

Robot arm and tool head

Robot arm

The rover's robot arm holds and manoeuvres the sophisticated instruments that will carry out tests on Martian rocks and soil. Shown folded in the panorama, it has three joints much like the shoulder, elbow and wrist of a human arm.

It is designed to work much as a human geologist would, taking microscopic images, grinding away layers and analysing the chemical composition of the Martian surface material.

At the tip of the arm are five different devices, including an X-ray spectrometer and a "hand lens" to help decipher the chemistry of rocks .


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Rover's nuclear battery

Curiosity needs power to operate its systems. The rover relies on the heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238 to generate its electricity.

The "nuclear battery" on the rear of the rover provides constant power during all seasons and through the day and night. Such a system is ideal for science missions designed to work over long periods of time, and it allows Curiosity to carry more instruments (and ones that draw more power) than it could if it used only solar panels.

Evidence of water

The north wall of Gale Crater is criss-crossed by a network of valleys believed to have been carved by water entering the 150km-wide depression from outside.

This is the first view of a so-called fluvial system taken from the surface of Mars. Such networks date from a period of Martian history when liquid water flowed freely on the surface. Scientists have remarked that Curiosity's surroundings bear a striking resemblance to the landscape of America's south-west.


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Science target

The primary goal of Curiosity is to get to the base of Mount Sharp over 6km away. Satellite pictures have suggested it will find rocks at this location that were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of abundant water.

These include clay minerals (phyllosilicates). These will give an insight into the wet, early era of the Red Planet known as the Noachian. A little further up the mountain, the rover should find sulphate salts, which relate to the Hesperian Era - a time when Mars was still wet but beginning to dry out.


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Where's the mast?

Robot arm

So, if most of the images in this interactive impression were taken by cameras on the mast, where is that structure? The mast stands more than 2m above the ground at the front of the vehicle. The cameras can be tilted to look down but there will be an area at the base of the mast that is always out of the field of view. This area could have been left blank, but the photo-artist has used some "technical noise" (image fragments of the rover) to blend it into the rest of the impression. Look for them at the front of the rover, on the right-hand side.

Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech, panorama montage by Andrew Bodrov.

How was this panorama made?

This is an interactive impression of the Curiosity rover and its Gale Crater landing site. It is built from a range of image sources, including early black and white images sent back to Earth by the one-tonne robot. One of the key landmarks, Mount Sharp, was constructed using this image.

The pictures have been stitched together and coloured. There are, however, some omissions that have had to be filled in by the photo artist to complete a full panorama. For example, the sky and the Sun have been added based on imagery by Nasa's previous rover Spirit.

Nasa's policy is to post all Curiosity's raw pictures on the internet. This allows anyone - amateur and professional image processors - to build their own galleries of Mars.

Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), landed on 6 August GMT.

Curiosity landing site: Gale Crater on Mars' equator
Mars maps

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