The Mars rover Curiosity successfully raised the mast that holds many of its instruments Wednesday, 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, 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 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.
Grotzinger said so far, the landscape looks somewhat familiar.
"The thing that really struck the science team about this image is that you would really be forgiven for thinking that NASA was trying to pull a fast one on you and we actually put a rover out in the Mojave Desert and took a picture -- a little L.A. smog coming in there," he said.
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.
Vandi Tompkins, one of Curiosity's operators, said images like those beamed back so far will be used to program the rover's movements when it gets under way.
Because of the time needed for a radio signal from Earth to reach the rover -- about 14 minutes at Mars' current position -- "We don't command the rover with a joystick or a steering wheel in real time," Tompkins said. "If we were to do that, by the time we would see we were at the edge of a cliff, the rover would have driven off of it."
Instead, operators use the photos to develop a plan for the next day's operations and transmit it to the rover, which carries it out and sends back the results.
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.