Curiosity Rover Sends A Moving Panorama

This 360-degree vista was acquired on Aug. 5, 2016, by the Mastcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called "Murray Buttes" on lower Mount Sharp. The dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of the rover's arm is about 50 feet high and, near the top, about 200 feet wide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This 360 panorama was taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as the rover neared features called “Murray Buttes” on lower Mount Sharp. Click for a larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Look around and get the lay of the land. Mars land. Eroded mesas and buttes reminiscent of the U.S. Southwest shape part of the horizon in the latest 360° color panorama from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover.

The rover used its Mast Camera (Mastcam) to capture more than 130 images on Aug. 5, 2016 during the afternoon of the mission’s 1,421st sol, or Martian day, by Mastcam’s left-eye camera. The Mastcam has “two eyes” or cameras to do stereo photography. Coincidentally, it was the fourth anniversary of Curiosity’s landing on the Red Planet inside Gale Crater.

Layered sandstones in a butte on the old lakebed floor of the Murray Formation on Mars. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech
Layered sandstones in a butte on the old lakebed floor of the Murray Formation on Mars. This color photo was taken Aug. 25, 2016 by the Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech

The dark, flat-topped mesa seen to the left of Curiosity’s robotic arm is about 300 feet (90 meters) from the rover’s position. It stands about 50 feet (15 meters) high. The horizontal ledge near the top of the mesa is about 200 feet (60 meters) across. An upper portion of Mount Sharp appears on the distant horizon to the left of this mesa.

A super wide-angle view of the Murray Formation and more distant mesas taken by one of Curiosity's hazard-avoidance cameras on Aug. 31, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A super wide-angle view of the Murray Formation and more distant mesas taken by one of Curiosity’s hazard-avoidance cameras on Aug. 31, 2016. Original image B&W, colorized by the author. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The relatively flat foreground is part of a geological layer called the Murray formation, which formed from lakebed mud deposits. The buttes and mesas rising above this surface are eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed. Laid down over millennia, the hardened materials now resemble the pages of a book.

A beautifully veined rock photographed by the rover on Aug. 25. The white, snake-like features are cracks in the rock where water percolated through and deposited minerals. Common ones found on Mars are calcium and magnesium sulfates. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A beautifully veined rock photographed by the rover on Aug. 25. The white, snake-like features are cracks in the rock where water percolated through and deposited minerals. Common ones found on Mars are calcium and magnesium sulfates. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The buttes and mesas of Murray Buttes are capped by material that is relatively resistant to erosion, the reason for their preservation, as is the case for similarly shaped buttes and mesas on Earth. We can imagine the scene long ago, when sandstones must have covered much of where Curiosity is roving today.  The location name honors Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a Caltech planetary scientist and director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Ouch! The rocky surface of Mars continues to take its toll on Curiosity's aluminum wheels. They're riddled with punctures and cracks. This photo was taken on Aug. 28. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Ouch! The rocky surface of Mars continues to take its toll on Curiosity’s aluminum wheels. They’re riddled with punctures and cracks. This photo was taken on Aug. 28. Mission controllers have taken care to route the rover, when possible, across softer terrain. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Early in its mission on Mars, Curiosity accomplished its main goal when it found and examined an ancient habitable environment. In its extended mission, the rover is examining successively younger layers as it climbs the lower part of Mount Sharp which fills the center of Gale Crater. A key goal is to learn how freshwater lake conditions, which would have been favorable for microbes billions of years ago if Mars has ever had life, evolved into harsher, arid conditions much less suited to supporting life. The mission is also monitoring the current environment of Mars.