Stark Mars terrain awaits Curiosity (pictures)

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity lands on the red planet on August 6. It'll search for signs of life amid harsh but strangely compelling Martian landscapes.

James Martin
1 of 32 David Crisp and the WFPC2 Science Team (Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology)

Hubble's sharpest view of Mars

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, better known as Curiosity, was launched by NASA on November 26, 2011, and in the wee hours of August 6, 2012 (1:31 a.m. ET), will make its touchdown on the red planet. It's a next-generation rover that's much larger, and far more advanced, than any of its predecessors.
Headed to the Gale Crater, the rover's primary objectives include exploring the potential habitability of Mars, past or present; studying the climate and geology; and collecting data for a future manned mission to the planet.
Curiosity is about twice as long as and five times heavier than predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, and is carrying more than 10 times the mass of scientific instruments. Every mission to Mars turns up more and more data, and Curiosity is sure to uncover exciting details about the Red Planet. Over the years, hundreds of stunning images have been returned from Mars, and we're just weeks away from the next batch of awe-inspiring visuals.
This amazingly sharp view of Mars was obtained following the refurbishing of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 1997. It was taken with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera - 2 (WFPC2), just before Mars opposition, when the red planet made one of its closest passes to the Earth, coming within 60 million miles of us.
2 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Gale Crater: Future home of Mars Rover Curiosity

NASA has selected Gale Crater, seen here, as the landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. This view of Gale is a mosaic of observations made in the visible-light portion of the spectrum by the Thermal Emission Imaging System camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. The landing site on the northern rim of the crater has been circled.

The Curiosity rover itself won't stray too far from its landing spot. Over the planned two (Earth) years of its mission, it is expected to travel a modest 12 miles or so. But that may be the most significant 12 miles ever traveled in planetary exploration. To mark the occasion of Curiosity's arrival, this slideshow brings you a collection of stunning images from all around Mars.

3 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/UA

Rock types in Gale Crater

This three-dimensional perspective view of the Gale Crater was created using visible-light imaging by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter.
A canyon was cut through the layers of different rock types after they formed, and is of particular interest to the Mars Science Laboratory mission. This canyon, similar to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, exposes layers of rock representing tens or hundreds of millions of years of environmental change.
4 of 32 NASA

First color image from Viking Lander 1

This color picture of Mars -- a classic view of the rocky orange-red surface -- was taken July 21, 1976, the day following Viking l's successful landing on the Red Planet, which marked the first successful mission to Mars.
The reddish surface materials are thought to be limonite, or hydrated ferric oxide.
5 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Noctis Canyon mosaic

A false-color mosaic focuses on a deep canyon intersection amid Noctis Labyrinthus, where the geologic features meet to form a depression 4,000 meters deep. The blue-tinted dust lies on the upper surfaces, while the warmer-colored rockier material lies below.
6 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/University of Rome/Southwest Research Institute

Glacial ice deposits in midlatitudes of Mars

The Deuteronilus Mensae region, seen here, in Mars' northern hemisphere, shows locations of ice deposits in blue that are more than 1 kilometer thick. The yellow lines indicate ground tracks of the radar observations from multiple orbits of the spacecraft used to capture the data.
7 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Spotted Arabia Dunes

Sand dunes mottled with blue-black spots lie next to a central hill within an unnamed, 120-kilometer-wide crater in eastern Arabia on Mars taken by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter in 2003 and 2004. False colors depict the nature of the ground surface: Areas with bluish tints have more fine sand at the surface, while redder tints indicate harder sediments and outcrops of rock.
8 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Northern Hemisphere gullies on west-facing crater slope

Like many midlatitude Martian craters, this impact crater has gullies along its walls that are composed of alcoves, channels, and debris aprons. The origins of these gullies have been the subject of much debate; they could have been formed by flowing water, liquid carbon dioxide, or dry granular flows. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took the image on April 13, 2010.
9 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Dunes and inverted crater in Arabia Terra

This view of an inverted crater in the Arabia Terra region of Mars is among the images taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on January 29, 2010, as the spacecraft approached the 100-terabit milestone in total data returned.
10 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ.

Erosion exposes deeply buried minerals

This image shows the context for orbital observations of exposed rocks that had been buried an estimated 5 kilometers (3 miles) deep on Mars. It covers an area about 560 kilometers (350 miles) across, dominated by the Huygens Crater, which is about the size of Wisconsin.
11 of 32 NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

The face on Mars

A key aspect of the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Extended Mission is the opportunity to turn the spacecraft and point the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) at specific features of interest.
One particular mesa of Arabia Terra in the lower northern plains of Mars looked to some like a human face. The feature was widely cited and popularized as a potential "alien artifact."
With such interest, a new high-resolution view was captured of the facelike mesa on April 8, 2001.
12 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Dune symmetry inside Martian crater

The dunes seen here, from a crater in Noachis Terra, west of the giant Hellas impact basin, are linear, and thought to be due to shifting wind directions. In places, each dune is remarkably similar to adjacent dunes, including a reddish band on northeast-facing slopes. Large angular boulders litter the floor between dunes.
13 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Phoenix Lander amid disappearing spring ice

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, its backshell, and its heatshield are visible within this enhanced-color image of the Phoenix landing site taken on January 6, 2010, as the carbon-dioxide frost that blanketed the lander and surrounding terrain throughout the winter begins to subside. The image was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
14 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Collapsing volcano; edge of Olympus Mons

This image -- taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 2, 2010 -- covers the northern edge of the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons on Mars.
The margin of Olympus Mons is defined by a massive cliff many kilometers tall. At this location, it is nearly 7 kilometers tall. The cliff exposes the guts of the volcano, revealing interbedded hard and soft layers. The hard layers are lava and the soft layers may be dust or volcanic ash.
15 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Icy layers and climate fluctuations near the Martian North Pole

The Martian north polar is layered with an ice sheet that is much like the Greenland ice sheet on the Earth. Like that of Greenland, this Martian ice sheet contains many layers that record variations in the Martian climate over time. Sometimes icy layers can be ablated away when the climate is warm. Later the ice sheet can be buried by new ice layers and grow in size again. It's likely that many of these cycles have occurred over the ice sheet's history.
The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recorded this image of north polar layered deposits on March 11, 2010.
16 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Intra-crater structure in Hellas Basin

This image from an observation by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter covers a small portion of the northwest quadrant of Hellas Basin, or Hellas Planitia, on southern Mars. With a diameter of about 2,200 kilometers and a depth reaching the lowest elevations on Mars, Hellas is one of the largest impact craters in the solar system.
17 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Polygonal ridge in Gordii Dorsum Region

This image -- taken from the Gordii Dorsum region of Mars by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on April 9, 2010 -- shows a large area covered with polygonal ridges in an almost geometric pattern. The ridges may have originally been dunes that hardened through the action of an unknown process. Groundwater may have been involved.
18 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars, December 17, 2009

Mars, as seen on December 17, 2009.
19 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Seasonal changes in northern Mars dune field

Three images of the same location, captured at different times by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, show the dynamic changes in seasonal activity causing sand avalanches and ripples on a Martian dune.
20 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL

Clay minerals in craters and escarpments

Subsurface clay minerals at thousands of Martian sites exposed by crater impact and erosion were examined by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, suggesting a long period of wet, warm conditions, mostly underground.
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Opportunity sits on the edge

On March 9, 2011, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acquired this color image of Santa Maria Crater, showing NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity perched on the southeast rim.
22 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Patterns of the Bunge Crater dunes

Formed by harsh winds, fans and ribbons of dark sand dunes creep across the floor of the Bunge Crater in this image, taken in January 2006 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.
23 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The erosion of Ares Vallis

In Ares Vallis, teardrop mesas stretch out behind impact craters caused by crater rims diverting floods where the ground was protected from erosion. Scientists estimate the floods that have caused these formations had peak volumes many times the flow of today's Mississippi River.
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The Noctis Labyrinthus

West of Valles Marineris lies a checkerboard named Noctis Labyrinthus, which formed when the Martian crust stretched and fractured. As faults opened, they released subsurface ice and water, causing the ground to collapse. This westward view combines images taken during the period from April 2003 to September 2005 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.
25 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Northern ice cap of Mars

This image, combining data from two instruments aboard NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, depicts an orbital view of the north polar region of Mars.
The ice-rich polar cap seen at the center of the image is approximately 1,000 kilometers across. The white cap is riven with dark, spiral-shaped bands, visible as deep troughs that are in shadow.
To the right of center, a large canyon, Chasma Boreale, almost bisects the ice cap. Chasma Boreale is about the length of the United States' famous Grand Canyon and up to 2 kilometers deep.
26 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Sculpted polar dunes

A sea of dark dunes, sculpted by the wind into long lines, surrounds the northern polar cap covering an area as big as Texas in this false-color image taken in 2004 and 2004 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. Areas with cooler temperatures are recorded in bluer tints, while warmer features are depicted in yellows and oranges.
27 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

It's geology's fault: the Cerberus Crack

Geological faulting has opened what is known as the Cerberus Crack - a 60 miles long canyon which cuts through mesas and plains on Mars. This image is composed of data captured from May 2002 to July 2004 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.
28 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Gemstone of the year

This image shows layers of rock stacked like a staircase, their edges extending diagonally from top left to bottom right and stepping downward from the lower left of the photo to the top right. At the far left of the image is an eroded, round crater filled with a row of nearly parallel sand dunes. To the right of the crater, a pinkish-colored layer of light-toned rock within the staircase contains opal.
29 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz./JHUAPL

Shifting sand in Herschel Crater

The eastern margin of a rippled dune in Herschel Crater on Mars moved an average distance of three meters between March 3, 2007, and December 1, 2010, as seen by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The white line tracks the displacement between two ripples.
30 of 32 NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz./JHUAPL

Rippling dune front in Herschel Crater

In just over three years, this rippled dune front in Herschel Crater moved an average of about two meters, as seen in these images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter taken between 2007 and 2010.
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Phoenix Lander after second Martian winter

This image, taken January 26, 2012, shows NASA's no-longer-active Phoenix Mars Lander spacecraft after its second Martian arctic winter. The scene was captured by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
32 of 32 NASA

Sedimentary rock layering

This image taken February 25, 2007, from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows sedimentary rock layering in which a series of layers are all approximately the same thickness.

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