Curiosity looks back on its 5-year journey with sweeping panorama
Curiosity has had quite a journey since it touched down on Mars in August 2012, and now the little rover that could has taken a moment to look back. Literally. From its perch on a ridge partway up Mount Sharp, Curiosity has snapped a panorama of Gale Crater, capturing many of the geological features the rover has explored and investigated over the years.
The impressive imagery, stitched together from 16 different shots, was taken on October 25, 2017, as the northern hemisphere of Mars approached its winter solstice and the weather was nice and clear. That allowed the rover to make out features all along the floor of Gale Crater, across to the mountains that form the rim, and even spot a distant hill, some 50 miles (85 km) away, peeking over the top.
The photo was taken from Vera Rubin Ridge, named after the late "mother of dark matter." To get there, Curiosity has climbed an elevation of 1,073 ft (327 m) above its landing site, and traveled a total of almost 11 miles (17.7 km).
"Even though Curiosity has been steadily climbing for five years, this is the first time we could look back and see the whole mission laid out below us," says Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity Project Scientist. "From our perch on Vera Rubin Ridge, the vast plains of the crater floor stretch out to the spectacular mountain range that forms the northern rim of Gale Crater."
To make sense of the scene, NASA has annotated the photo to point out the route the rover has taken, as well as some of the features it's investigated along the way. Highlights include Yellowknife Bay, where Curiosity conducted its first drilling mission in early 2013. Then there's the Namib Dune, where the rover got a good look at the strange sand ripples made possible by the Martian winds and thin atmosphere.
Further along is the Murray Buttes, where in September 2016 Curiosity sent back some breathtaking close-ups of the rocky formations. And as the rover began its ascent up Mount Sharp, it achieved the goal it had originally been sent for, finding evidence that Gale Crater was once a giant lake with conditions suitable for life.
Since the panorama was taken, Curiosity has climbed a further 85 ft (26 m) in elevation, as it heads further up the mountain towards its next major destination, dubbed Clay Unit.
The video below takes you on a guided tour of the area, with NASA scientists pointing out landmarks.