MARS — NASA released the first color images of the surface of Mars from its new rover Curiosity on Tuesday, showing a dusty, tan desert dominated by the rim of the crater where the craft landed.
The image -- shot at an angle by a camera on Curiosity's still-stowed robotic arm -- shows the sandy plain ahead of the rover and the rim of Gale Crater, where it touched down early Monday. It's the latest in a series of pictures the probe has beamed back since its harrowing landing, including 297 low-resolution color images of the final minutes of its descent.
The pictures, posted on the space agency's website, show some of the gyrations Curiosity went through beneath its parachute, and the dust kicked up as it touched down.
"The image sequence received so far indicates Curiosity had, as expected, a very exciting ride to the surface," NASA said in a press statement.
"As dramatic as they are, there is real other-world importance to obtaining them. These images will help the mission scientists interpret the rover's surroundings, the rover drivers in planning for future drives across the surface, as well as assist engineers in their design of forthcoming landing systems for Mars or other worlds."
The $2.6 billion Curiosity made its dramatic arrival on Martian terrain in a spectacle popularly known as the "seven minutes of terror." This jaw-dropping landing process, involving a sky crane and the world's largest supersonic parachute, allowed the spacecraft carrying Curiosity to target the landing area that scientists had meticulously chosen.
The spacecraft had been traveling away from Earth since November 26 on a journey of about 352 million miles (567 million kilometers), according to NASA.
Curiosity, which will be controlled from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has a full suite of sophisticated tools for exploring Mars. They include 17 cameras, a laser that can survey the composition of rocks from a distance and instruments that can analyze samples from soil or rocks.
The aim of its work is "to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms," NASA said.
Curiosity is supposed to last for two years on Mars, but it may operate longer -- after all, Spirit and Opportunity, which arrived on Mars in 2004, were each only supposed to last 90 Martian days. Spirit stopped communicating with NASA in 2010 after getting stuck in sand, and Opportunity is still going.