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.

“The first impression that you get is how Earth-like 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 flood of black-and-white pictures that will be stitched into a panorama.

It provided the best view so far of its destination since touching down Sunday night, after nailing an intricate 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 scientists 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 glimpsing the last two-and-a-half 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 coloured view of its surroundings as early as today.

John Grotzinger said that he was struck by the Martian landscape, which appeared diverse. There seemed to be harder material underneath the gravely surface, he said.

“It kind of makes you feel at home. We’re looking at a place that feels really comfortable,” he said.

He added that 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.

(This article was published on August 10, 2012)
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