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Mars Rover Beams Back ‘Awesome’ Shot Of Surface

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(CNN) — NASA released the first color images of the surface of Mars from its new rover Curiosity on Tuesday, showing a dusty, tan desert dominated by the rim of the crater where the craft landed.

The image — shot at an angle by a camera on Curiosity’s still-stowed robotic arm — shows the sandy plain ahead of the rover and the northern rim of Gale Crater, where the rover touched down early Monday. The image was shot through a retractable, transparent dust shield over the lens, making it “kind of murky,” said Ken Edgett, a senior scientist for the camera’s builder, Malin Space Science Systems.

Controllers wanted to make sure the camera still functioned after Curiosity’s 352-million-mile voyage and harrowing landing early Monday, Edgett told reporters at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“This was basically a focus test,” he said, adding, “It works. It’s awesome. We can’t wait to open it and see what else we can see.”

The crater rim seen in the photo is more than 20 km (12.5 miles) from the rover, Edgett said.

Other images beamed back in the first day and a half since the landing include include 297 low-resolution color images of the final minutes of its descent. The pictures, posted on the space agency’s website, show some of the gyrations Curiosity went through beneath its parachute and the dust kicked up as it touched down.

The $2.6 billion Curiosity made its dramatic arrival on Martian terrain in a spectacle popularly known as the “seven minutes of terror.” The landing involve a sky crane and the world’s largest supersonic parachute, which allowed the spacecraft carrying Curiosity to target the landing area that scientists had meticulously chosen.

“These are the days that people worked five and 10 years for, going on right now,” mission manager Michael Watkins said.

Curiosity, which will be controlled from JPL, has a full suite of sophisticated tools for exploring Mars. They include 17 cameras, a laser that can survey the composition of rocks from a distance and instruments that can analyze samples from soil or rocks.

The aim of its work is “to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms,” NASA said.

Curiosity is supposed to last for two years on Mars, but it may operate longer — after all, Spirit and Opportunity, which arrived on Mars in 2004, were each only supposed to last 90 Martian days. Spirit stopped communicating with NASA in 2010 after getting stuck in sand, and Opportunity is still going.

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