Curiosity has landed less than two days ago and she's already busy not only performing all kinds of checks on its instruments but also snapping photos from different cameras. The very first pics came from the hazcams, showing the rover's immediate surroundings. And now (drum roll) we have the first color landscape image.
The image, which you see above [click on it for full size], shows the landscape to the north of where Curiosity landed. What you see in the distance is the north wall and rim of Gale Crater. That's where Curiosity is going to explore. Initial estimates put the straight distance between the landing site and the outer rim at about 6.5 kilometers, though driving there might require a less direct route, estimated at around 12 kilometers.
The picture was taken by an instrument called the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). It's a camera mounted on the rover's articulated arm that doubles as a microscope. The arm is still stowed, so MAHLI is pointing outwards and is not fully horizontal (that's why the image is at a 30-degree angle).
And granted, it's a bit murky. That's because the MAHLI still has its transparent dust cover on, and it's apparently coated with dust from the landing. The MAHLI, however, can open and close the cover. The scientists decided to snap a picture with the cover on just to get a first look; they plan to open the cover and take another shot, which should be clearer, when they start testing the robotic arm in a week or so.
"I waited a long time for this to come back," said MAHLI principal investigator Ken Edgett at a press conference today at JPL. "This was a focus test," he added, explaining that the focus mechanism hasn't moved since launch over six months ago. "Does the focus still focus? it does!"
The MAHLI camera was designed to acquire close-up views of rocks and other artifacts on Martian soil, but because it can focus from 2.1 centimeters to infinity, NASA can use it to take pictures of the Martian landscape as well.
Among other activities performed yesterday, the JPL engineers deployed the high-gain antenna, which sits on the rover's back. This antenna allows Curiosity to communicate directly with Earth. Initial tests showed that the antenna is not perfectly positioned, and a correction will be sent to the rover tomorrow. Also tomorrow, the plan is to deploy the rover's mast, which should be an exciting event -- Curiosity raising its head.
The first thing the rover will do take a picture of a calibration target and then snap a 360 degree panorama of its own body (known as the rover's deck). After that the rover can look at the horizon and start taking stereo and color photographs.