Curiosity rover's sandy Mars selfie puts dunes in perspective

NASA's Curiosity rover delivers another enchanting selfie from the surface of Mars as technicians back on Earth try to sort out a problem with the vehicle's sampling system.

There's an old joke about the state of New Mexico. We have lots of beaches, we just don't have an ocean. That same wisecrack could apply to some areas of Mars. NASA's Curiosity rover is well into the beach vacation part of its mission as it investigates a fascinating stretch of sand dunes called the Bagnold Dune Field.

The rover marked the occasion with the next entry in a line of eye-catching Mars selfies. The image shows the rover at the Namib Dune. You can see where the rover's wheel has pushed through the fine particles. It has also been scooping up samples for analysis by its internal instruments.

The selfie is made possible by combining 57 separate photos from the Mars Hand Lens Imager camera. This camera is located at the end of a long arm. Think of it as the rover's personal selfie stick. The images were taken on January 19 and NASA released the completed selfie compilation Friday.

Even this Mars rover enjoys an occasional selfie.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA is currently trying to work through a hiccup in the rover's sample analysis system. The third of three sand samples wasn't processed properly when it became stuck in a tunnel inside the rover's sampling system. The sand made it through a sieve, but the tunnel didn't open as it was supposed to. The part that isn't behaving is called a "thwack actuator." For real.

"The rover responded properly to this unexpected event," said NASA's Steve Lee. "It stopped moving the actuator and halted further use of the arm and sampling system." Troubleshooting is under way.

The rover collected two other dune samples prior to the one that got stuck. Some sand grains have already been delivered to an on-board chemistry-analysis device, so scientists will have some data to look forward to.

The rover, which landed on Mars in August 2012, is also keeping an eye on the dunes to see if wind is pushing the granules around. These are the first dunes beyond Earth to get a close-up study. That's definitely worth celebrating with a selfie.

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