As any tourist would do, the Mars Curiosity Rover paused on its trek through the Gale Crater to take an Instagram-worthy panoramic photo.
Since touching down in August 2012, the remotely-operated, six-wheeled robot has been on a mission to study the geological conditions and climate of the planet’s surface. The data gathered by its many onboard instruments will help determine whether or not the conditions were conducive to the development of extraterrestrial life in the past, and provide insights relevant to future manned expeditions.
On its way to Mount Sharp three months ago, Curiosity paused on the Vera Rubin Ridge and surveyed the landscape below. Taking advantage of the clear Martian winter, project scientists captured this stunning 16-image composite released to the public this week.
Through the eye of the rover’s Mast Camera, we can see the 18-kilometer (11-mile) path Curiosity has been traveling for the past five years. A dried-up, ancient riverbed is discernable to the left, and the mountainous rim of the 154-kilometer (96-mile) diameter impact crater can be seen clearly for up to 80 kilometers (50 miles) in the distance.
(If you’re wondering why the Red Planet looks suspiciously neutral in tone, NASA explains that the images were color corrected to make geological analysis easier.)
In the time since these photos were taken, Curiosity has advanced to the southern edge of the ridge, stopping to investigate rocky formations along the way. All told, the vehicle has gained 327 meters (1,073 feet) in elevation from its landing site, but it still has a way to go until it reaches the Mount Sharp foothills, where it will remain to study the terrain indefinitely.
“The mountain's base provides access to layers formed over millions of years," said the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team in the accompanying statement. “These layers formed in the presence of water – likely due to a lake or lakes where sediments accumulated, which formed these layers inside Gale Crater.”
The space agency also graced us Earthlings with a Curiosity “self-portrait”, released February 1. The photo was compiled from a series of images taken by the mobile lab's other camera, MAHLI, on January 23, 2018, or sol 1943 in local time.
Lined up squarely behind the rover's WALL-E-reminiscent head is the distant peak of Mount Sharp.
"Directly behind the rover is the start of a clay-rich slope scientists are eager to begin exploring," NASA said. "In coming weeks, Curiosity will begin to climb this slope. In the image, north is on the left and west is on the right, with Gale Crater's rim on the horizon of both edges."
Note: Do not be envious of Curiosity's apparently magical selfie skills. Apparently, the visible parts of the camera’s arm were removed during the photo collage process.