September 9, 2012

Say Cheese: Curiosity Snaps Self-Portrait On Saturday

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports — Your Universe Online

After snapping several fascinating images of various landscapes since landing on Mars just over a month ago, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover captured a picture of a whole different kind of wonder on Saturday -- itself.

According to NBCNews.com Science Editor Alan Boyl, the mobile laboratory used one of its seventeen cameras, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), to take its first-ever self-portrait.

The MAHLI, Boyle said, is mounted at the end of Curiosity's seven foot-long robotic arm, and the photo itself has a "reddish cast" because it was taken through the camera's "dust-coated lens cover."

"The top of the rover's mast -- the face -- is front and center, with the Martian horizon in the far background," he explained. "The biggest 'eye' on the face is the lens for the ChemCam instrument, which can shoot out a laser beam to vaporize rock and read the chemical signature contained in the resulting flash of light."

"Two square eyes below the big lens represent the two cameras of the color Mastcam imaging system. Four smaller round eyes, two on each side, are the high-resolution, black-and-white Navcam imagers," Boyle added.

The original, untouched versions of the pictures were transmitted at 00:44:16 UTC on September 8, and have been posted at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory website. However, Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society took the original image, rotated it and tinkered with its contrast in order to enhance the quality. She posted the edited version -- as well as a humorous, "LOLcat"-style take on Curiosity's self-portrait -- on her blog.

Lakdawalla calls it a "wonderful" photo, adding that the "taupe color" of the original version "shows you just how dusty the dust cover got. But if you crank the heck out of the contrast" -- as she did in her edited version of the image -- "you can see how beautifully sharply in focus MAHLI is seeing Mars."

The $2.6 billion rover is currently in the midst of a two-year mission at Gale Crater on Mars, and is attempting to determine whether or not the planet's environment could have possibly supported life at some point in its history. It is currently en route to an area that NASA scientists have nicknamed Glenelg, where NASA scientists believe they may find bedrock that Curiosity can drill into.

"Curiosity's long-range goal is Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-high mound of layered terrain in the center of Gale Crater about 5 miles south of Glenelg that represents a time capsule of sorts capturing hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of years of Martian history," CNET's William Harwood wrote on Saturday.

"The rover will attempt to climb up into the foothills of Mount Sharp to study the transition between clays and soils that likely formed in the presence of water and overlying, more recent, layers that represent drier environments," he added.