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New Mars rover Curiosity photos intrigue NASA scientists

August 10, 2012 |  3:15 am

More photos: Mars rover mission

Color panorama photos taken by the Mars rover Curiosity are the latest in several reveal images transmitted since the mission began on Sunday.

In a Google+ Hangout (see below) flight director Bobak Ferdowsi discussed the photos and how they are helping in NASA's understanding of Mars. He also talked about some of the images we can expect to see in the coming days and weeks. Times science writer Amina Khan also talked about what to expect next from Curiosity.

Some of the images particularly intrigued NASA.

PHOTOS: Mars rover mission

"Scientists will be taking a closer look at several splotches in the foreground that appear gray," NASA wrote on its website.

"These areas show the effects of the descent stage's rocket engines blasting the ground. What appeared as a dark strip of dunes in previous black-and-white pictures from Curiosity can also be seen along the top of this mosaic, but the color images also reveal additional shades of reddish brown around the dunes, likely indicating different textures or materials."

Several high-resolution images from Mars were released by NASA on Wednesday. Black-and-white photos stitched together from Curiosity’s cameras show gravelly terrain with what looks like well-cut, pyramidal mountains in the background.

“You’ve been hearing us saying, ‘Just wait till you see the good stuff.’ Well, this is the good stuff,” said Mike Malin, lead scientist for the rover's MARDI descent imager.

On Tuesday, engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory received a new image of the landing zone taken by an orbiting satellite. With tongue in cheek, this image was labeled the "crime scene" photo, because it not only showed Curiosity on the ground, but all of the pieces of the spacecraft that the rover had discarded on its way down.

Minutes before landing, Curiosity had been contained in an experimental "backpack" that lowered itself to the ground using powerful rocket engines. The engines could have kicked up so much dust that it suffocated the rover. So, just 66 feet above the ground, the backpack spat out Curiosity, leaving the rover dangling by three ropes.

The hovering spacecraft lowered Curiosity to the ground and was then cut loose. Once free, the crane throttled up its engines and arched across the Martian sky.

The crime scene photo showed that the sky crane had crash-landed, as designed, about 2,000 feet away -- and in the same direction that Curiosity's camera was pointed when it snapped a photo. The new satellite photo also showed that the sky crane, when it crash-landed, kicked up a violent wave of dirt that had scarred the surface of Mars.


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-- Amina Khan, Scott Gold and Shelby Grad

Photo: A cut-out from a color panorama from Mars. Credit: NASA