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The Mission




Mission: Mars Science Lab
Rocket: Atlas 5 (AV-028)
Launch: Nov. 26, 2011 @ 10:02am EST (1502 GMT)
Landing: Aug. 6, 2012 @ 1:32am EDT (0532 GMT)
Site: Base of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater

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Curiosity sends stunning views of Mount Sharp
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: August 27, 2012


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NASA's Curiosity rover, giving earthlings a glimpse of its ultimate target, has beamed back spectacular high-resolution photos of the rugged foothills of Mount Sharp, showing a khaki-colored landscape marked by towering hills, gaping canyons and sand dunes reminiscent of the American southwest, scientists said Monday.


A chapter of the layered geological history of Mars is laid bare in this postcard from NASA's Curiosity rover. The image shows the base of Mount Sharp, the rover's eventual science destination. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
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In one view, the rover photographed a scientifically intriguing transition from relatively flat rock beds made up of water-influenced minerals to steeply inclined unhydrated layers marking a dramatic, geologically sudden discontinuity that signals a major change in martian history.

But for sheer visual impact, it was a zoomed in view of the Mount Sharp foothills that provided the most stunning vista, showing the nearby gravel-strewn field, a sudden drop off into a partially hidden impact crater, dark dunes and then gaping canyons between hills and mesa-like features making up the lower slopes of the towering 3-mile-tall mound of layered terrain.

"When those of us on the science team looked at that image for the first time you get this feeling, 'that's what I'm talking about,'" said Project Scientist John Grotzinger. "That is why we picked this landing site. Although the anticipated scenic beauty was not something that was at the top of the list for reasons to select it, it was certainly one thing we were hoping would come through one day. It's awesome to see this."

All of the discernible layers in the zoomed-in image "are the layers from orbit that contain the hydrated phyllosilicates and sulfates," Grotzinger said, referring to clay-like minerals that formed in the presence of water. "So everything in that image there is a science target for us. And again, the goal here is to drive up (the side of Mount Sharp) eventually (and) when we do, there's a very systematic approach to exploring, moving around through this terrain that looks like it was something that comes out of a John Ford movie."

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater on Aug. 6 and since then, engineers have been methodically checking out its complex systems and science instruments. So far, no major problems have been found, with the latest tests showing one of the rover's critical sample analysis laboratories -- the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAMS instrument -- is working as expected.

Curiosity currently is poised to study rocks that were exposed when the rover's sky crane landing rockets blasted topsoil away during the final seconds of the descent. Its first major scientific target is an area known as Glenelg, about 1,300 feet away to the east, where three types of terrain come together. The rover is expected to remain near Glenelg for the rest of the year before striking out toward Mount Sharp sometime in early 2013.

Despite the rugged nature of the terrain seen Monday, engineers believe the rover eventually will be able to safety climb up into the foothills of Mount Sharp.

"We're going to be driving the rover around in these valleys and looking up at these hills and finding the places where the strata come down and intersect the topography that the rover can drive through," Grotzinger said. "We know it can, because there's so much great data from orbit that allowed us to simulate the drives before we chose this landing site to demonstrate that we could make it up through this terrain."

The image in question was "white balanced," said camera designer Mike Malin, "with a little less blue than normally comes in with white balance. I do this because it looks pretty to me, and it's also a geologically interpretable image. I like to look at things as they would look like on the Earth. On Mars it's a little more khaki color, also a little pink on top of that."


This image is from a test series used to characterize the 100-millimeter Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
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The science team was especially exited by shots showing the transition from relatively level to steeply inclined beds.

"What you see in this image (is) a transition from the strata that are almost flat line, not quite, and they're full of the hydrated minerals, to strata above them, which do not obviously contain the hydrated (water-infused) minerals," Grotzinger said. "Now we don't know from orbit whether they are absent those spectral responses because they're covered with dust or because they're truly absent. But the striking thing about it, everything above that (transition) is steeply inclined with respect to everything that's below it."

"This is a spectacular feature that we're seeing very early on that you only had the slightest hint from orbit. ... This kind of relationship is something that can help us understand the origin of these strata, that clearly are the result of the exhumation of the larger sequence of strata that created Mount Sharp."

Studying the images from orbit and the latest photos from Curiosity, the science team senses "a big change up Mount Sharp and one day we hope, towards the end of our mission, to get up and go across that (transition) to check it out," Grotzinger said.

Malin provided labeled images showing the distances to the foothills and a zoomed-in view showing a boulder about five miles away that is roughly the same size as Curiosity.

"That gives you an idea of the scale of the hills and the canyons we'll be driving on," he said. "Basically, this is the ultimate goal, this is where we want to get in the next year and a half or two years, this is the place we want to be. This is 10 kilometers away, and it would take the rover, even if the rover were driving flat out, a hundred days to get there.

"We're not going to drive flat out because we have science to do as well. So it's going to take us a while to get over there."

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Additional coverage for subscribers:
VIDEO: THE MARS SCIENCE LAB FULL LAUNCH EXPERIENCE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ATLAS 5 ROCKET LAUNCHES MARS SCIENCE LAB PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD CAMERA VIEW OF NOSE CONE JETTISON PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD CAMERA VIEW OF THE STAGING EVENT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD VIEW OF ROCKET RELEASING MSL PLAY
VIDEO: LAUNCH DECLARED A SUCCESS PLAY

VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: OUR VIEW OF LIFTOFF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: VAB ROOF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: PATRICK AFB PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SOUTH OF THE PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: THE BEACH TRACKER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SHUTTLE PAD CAMERA PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SHUTTLE WATER TOWER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: TRACKER WEST OF THE PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: CLOSE-UP ON UMBILICALS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: COMPLEX 41 VIF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: THE PRESS SITE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: PRE-LAUNCH INTERVIEW WITH PROJECT MANAGER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: NARRATED PREVIEW OF ATLAS 5 ASCENT PROFILE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROCKET'S LAUNCH CAMPAIGN HIGHLIGHTS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MSL'S LAUNCH CAMPAIGN HIGHLIGHTS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPACECRAFT CLEANROOM TOUR PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: ATLAS ROCKET ROLLS OUT TO LAUNCH PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: TIME-LAPSE VIEWS OF ROCKET ROLLOUT PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: THE PRE-LAUNCH NEWS CONFERENCE PLAY
VIDEO: CURIOSITY ROVER SCIENCE BRIEFING PLAY
VIDEO: LOOKING FOR LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE PLAY
VIDEO: WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE RED PLANET PLAY
VIDEO: ROBOTICS AND HUMANS TO MARS TOGETHER PLAY

VIDEO: PREVIEW OF ENTRY, DESCENT AND LANDING PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: PREVIEW OF CURIOSITY ROVER EXPLORING MARS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: A FLYOVER OF THE GALE CRATER LANDING SITE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: NUCLEAR GENERATOR HOISTED TO ROVER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MARS SCIENCE LAB MOUNTED ATOP ATLAS 5 PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MOVING MSL TO ATLAS ROCKET HANGAR PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPACECRAFT PLACED ABOARD TRANSPORTER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: APPLYING MISSION LOGOS ON THE FAIRING PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MSL ENCAPSULATED IN ROCKET'S NOSE CONE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FINAL LOOK AT SPACECRAFT BEFORE SHROUDING PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: HEAT SHIELD INSTALLED ONTO SPACECRAFT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: BEAUTY SHOTS OF SPACECRAFT PACKED UP PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ATTACHING THE RING-LIKE CRUISE STAGE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: PARACHUTE-EQUIPPED BACKSHELL INSTALLED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SKYCRANE AND CURIOSITY MATED TOGETHER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: TWO-HALVES OF ROCKET NOSE CONE ARRIVES PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: CENTAUR UPPER STAGE HOISTED ATOP ATLAS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FINAL SOLID ROCKET BOOSTER ATTACHED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FIRST OF FOUR SOLID BOOSTERS MOUNTED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FIRST STAGE ERECTED ON MOBILE LAUNCHER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: STAGES DRIVEN FROM HARBOR TO THE ASOC PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROCKET ARRIVES ABOARD SEA-GOING VESSEL PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: STOWING ROVER'S INSTRUMENTED ROBOT ARM PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: DEPLOYING CURIOSITY'S SIX WHEELS ON EARTH PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MMRTG PUT BACK INTO STORAGE AT SPACEPORT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: NUCLEAR GENERATOR FIT-CHECK ON THE ROVER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROVER'S NUCLEAR POWER SOURCE ARRIVES PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPIN-TESTING THE RING-LIKE CRUISE STAGE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: UNCOVERING CURIOSITY ROVER IN CLEANROOM PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: UNVEILING THE ROCKET-POWERED SKYCRANE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: UNBOXING THE ROVER FROM SHIPPING CRATE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROVER HAULED FROM RUNWAY TO PHSF FACILITY PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MARS ROVER ARRIVES AT KENNEDY SPACE CENTER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: DESCENT WEIGHTS INSTALLED ON BACKSHELL PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SOLAR ARRAY PANELS ATTACHED TO CRUISE RING PLAY | HI-DEF
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