Some day in the distant future, homesick Mars colonists in need of comfort might take a quick jaunt up Mt. Sharp to soak up a view that looks just like desert rock formations on Earth. A stunning new 360-degree color image taken on Mars on Aug. 5 by NASA's Mars rover, Curiosity, looks at first glance like it could have been taken in parts of the US southwest, Australia, Africa, Spain or India.
The mosaic of photos transmitted by Curiosity are of a Martian region informally called the Murray Buttes, named nearly three years ago in honor of Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray, a former director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, which manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.
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The images show eroded desert rock formations called mesas and buttes towering above a flat, desert-like foreground, part of a geological layer formed from lakebed mud deposits.
Mesas and buttes are geological terms for hard rock formations usually formed in arid regions. A mesa (from the Spanish word for "table") is a large, elevated area with a flat top and steep sides, called a tableland in some countries. A butte (pronounced "byoot") is a taller, steeper tower of rock. Both structures are created as weathering by wind or water slowly erode softer rock surrounding harder rock.
The Mars rover passed the formations as part of its long journey up lower Mount Sharp, a peak that rises 18,000 ft above the Gale crater (pictured above), where Curiosity originally landed.
The rover used its mast camera to capture dozens of images that make up the final composite. The mesa to the left of the Curiosity's robotic arm is reported to be about 50 feet (15 m) high, and about 300 feet (90 m) from the rover's location. On the left side of the mesa, an upper portion of Mount Sharp can be seen.
The panorama seems a fitting celebration of the day the images were taken – on the four-year anniversary (in Earth years) of the day the Curiosity rover landed on Mars.
Curiosity is one of two automated vehicles currently exploring Mars. The Gale Crater and the mountain within it are of particular interest because scientists believe the crater was formed when a meteor hit Mars around 3.5 billion years ago. The region may hold sediments and layers of rock that can help us learn much about Mars and its history.
Earlier in its mission on Mars, Curiosity accomplished its main goal by helping scientists perform an extensive soil analysis that revealed that Gale once contained an ancient freshwater lake that could have been hospitable for microbial life. On Dec. 16, 2014, NASA reported that Curiosity had measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, and detected other organic molecules in a rock sample collected by the rover's drill.
The Curiosity rover is now on an extended mission to examine successively younger layers of rock as it climbs the lower parts of Mount Sharp, to try to learn more about the current conditions on Mars, and to solve the mystery of why the habitable freshwater lake conditions in the region evolved into the harsher, arid conditions of modern Mars.
The following video allows you to pan around the Murray Buttes.