Curiosity takes first telephoto images of Mount Sharp

NASA’s Curiosity rover has beamed back the first telephoto images from the Martian surface, showing a mountainside marked by eroded knobs and gulches, and geological layering clearly visible.

The new views were taken by the 100-millimeter telephoto lens and the 34-milllimeter wide angle lens of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument.

“This is an area on Mount Sharp where Curiosity will go,” says Mastcam principal investigator Michael Malin, of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego.

“Those layers are our ultimate objective. The dark dune field is between us and those layers. In front of the dark sand you see redder sand, with a different composition suggested by its different color. The rocks in the foreground show diversity – some rounded, some angular, with different histories. This is a very rich geological site to look at and eventually to drive through.”

Early Monday, Curiosity moved to a spot directly over a patch where one of the spacecraft’s landing engines had scoured away a few inches of gravelly soil, exposing the underlying rock.

Researchers plan to use a neutron-shooting instrument on the rover to check for water molecules bound into minerals in the rock.

The rover team’s also reported the results of a test on Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which can measure the composition of samples of atmosphere, powdered rock or soil.

“As a test of the instrument, the results are beautiful confirmation of the sensitivities for identifying the gases present,” says SAM principal investigator Paul Mahaffy. “We’re happy with this test and we’re looking forward to the next run in a few days when we can get Mars data.”

Curiosity is already returning more data from the Martian surface than have all of NASA’s earlier rovers combined, says NASA.

“We have an international network of telecommunications relay orbiters bringing data back from Curiosity,” says JPL’s Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “Curiosity is boosting its data return by using a new capability for adjusting its transmission rate.”