Mars panorama shows Curiosity's prime target

Story highlights

  • A 360-degree color panorama of Gale Crater includes Mount Sharp
  • The peak is the Mars rover Curiosity's prime target
  • The rover performed "flawlessly" on its third day on Mars, controllers say

Mars rover Curiosity beamed back a sweeping color panorama of the planet's surface Thursday, showing the rocky, reddish desert surrounding it and the mountain it will explore in the coming months.

The 360-degree view captures the landscape of Gale Crater, where Curiosity touched down early Monday, and the foot of Mount Sharp -- the rover's primary scientific target. Mike Malin, whose company built the camera used to shoot the scene, said the shot was "probably not the best pointed," but added, "We hope we'll get many others."

The brightness of the image was boosted to compensate for the dim sunlight of the martian afternoon, but the colors were untouched, NASA said.

Curiosity went through its paces "flawlessly" on its third full day on the planet, mission manager Michael Watkins said Thursday. The rover's mission is to determine whether Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting life, and its prime target is Mount Sharp, the 18,000-foot (5,500-meter) peak about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) to the south.

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Curiosity opening Martian frontier?

Scientists hope the layers of rock that form the mountain will give them a timeline of the history of Mars. Curiosity mission planner Dawn Sumner said photographs like the ones beamed back by the rover, as well as others taken by probes in orbit, will be used to map a path to the mountain's base -- "doing the best science we can along the way, but also keeping our eyes on that beautiful layered rock," she said.

The rover is supposed to run for two years, but a previous rover, Opportunity, has been working on Mars since 2004 -- well beyond the three months NASA planned. Opportunity's sister rover, Spirit, ran from 2004 to 2010.

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