Curiosity mast raised, images beneath Mars surface beamed back

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(CNN) — The Mars rover Curiosity successfully raised the mast that holds many of its instruments Wednesday, August 8th, giving controllers a view of the ground scorched by the rockets that deposited it on the surface.

The car-sized rover landed on Mars early Monday after a harrowing descent that climaxed with its being lowered by a “skycrane” that hovered over the landing site. Cameras mounted on Curiosity’s remote sensing mast beamed back fresh images of the site once the column was raised into position, giving NASA a view of the roughly half-meter (19-inch) “scour marks” from the rocket exhaust.

Those gouges are giving mission controllers an unexpectedly early view of the bedrock beneath the surface of Gale Crater, said John Grotzinger, a Curiosity project scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

“Apparently, there is a harder, rockier material beneath this veneer of gravel and pebbles, and obviously there’s some impact ejecta,” Grotzinger told reporters at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where controllers operate the rover. While Curiosity isn’t yet ready to start driving around, “Here we’ve already got an exploration hole drilled for us,” Grotzinger said.

The mission of the car-sized mobile science laboratory is to determine whether Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting life. Its prime target is the 18,000-foot (5,500-meter) peak at the center of Gale Crater, Mount Sharp, where scientists hope to get a layer-by-layer look at the history of the planet.

Controllers are still activating Curiosity’s instrument package, and all antennas that will beam back data to JPL “work perfectly,” mission manager Jennifer Trosper said Wednesday. The onboard weather monitoring unit has turned out to be “completely healthy” following a brief glitch reported Tuesday. The high-bandwidth antenna that aims back at Earth is beaming back “lots and lots of data” and the rover is expected to capture a color panorama of its surroundings on Thursday, she said.

“There are going to be some amazing images from that,” Trosper said.

Curiosity will start its third full martian day, or sol, on Thursday. A sol is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth.

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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