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Latest Curiosity image perhaps best yet

NASA's Mars rover snaps a series of photos that are assembled into a vivid self-portrait, with a martian mountain as backdrop.

"Huh?" -- Surprised by your sudden presence, Curiosity nevertheless regains its composure, looks you straight in the eye, and swears it was only collecting a few samples. You'll find the full -- and full-size -- images below. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

It's as if you've just strolled up to Curiosity on the surface of Mars and surprised the rover as -- convinced that everyone at Mission Control is on a coffee break -- it's decided to ditch the scientific research for a bit and build a martian sand castle instead.

One of the latest Curiosity images posted by NASA is a stunning self-portrait made up of 55 high-rez images taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager. The base of Mount Sharp serves as a dramatic backdrop, swooping up toward the right, and in front of the rover, you can see four hand-size holes in the ground where Curiosity had just started building its sand castle gathered scoops of martian dirt for analysis. The scoop site is poetically named "Rocknest."


The full-size image allows you to discover interesting goodies, such as cool space stickers. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

When viewing the full-size image, posted earlier this week (and accessible below), the detail is so fine, you feel you can just about see individual grains of dirt -- and it's tempting to spend the rest of the day combing for coins, lost keys, the shells of martian crabs, and other such red-planet flotsam. Beachy pleasures aside, however, the image has an important function.

"Self-portraits like this one document the state of the rover and allow mission engineers to track changes over time, such as dust accumulation and wheel wear," NASA says on its Web site.

They also ensure that Curiosity behaves itself when the folks at Mission Control step out for a macchiato.

Click on the full image below to get the ginormous version, and spend a little time admiring this fine machine and the intriguing planet it now calls home.


Curiosity's stitched-together self-portrait, taken at "Rocknest" in Gale Crater. Click on the image for the large, scrollable version (and click again to return here). NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems