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Hey, is that Mars or the Mojave in NASA rover's photo?

One of the first images from the camera atop the rover Curiosity's mast shows a Mars landscape that scientists called remarkably Earth-like, as if NASA 'put a rover out in the Mojave Desert.'

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The rover's radiation monitor – designed to measure cosmic rays and the effects of solar storms on the surface – has started returning data. The data will give mission planners a better idea of the radiation hazards astronauts would face on Mars. And scientists will combine Curiosity's radiation data with similar measurements taken at the top of the atmosphere by MAVEN, an orbiter slated for launch in November 2013 that aims to answer questions about the disappearance of what is thought to have been a denser atmosphere early in Mars' history.

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Analysts looking at additional images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's overflight of the landing area found the impact locations for six tungsten weights the rover's entry vehicle ejected at is descended – an action vital to the successful operation of Curiosity's self-guided descent stage. The pattern of impact scars and their trajectory after they were released will provide useful information about the atmosphere's condition when the rover began its descent.

Still, it comes as no surprise that images from the rover steal the show.

In addition to the landscape image that captivated the science team, the navigation camera returned thumbnail images that provide the first slice of a 360-degree panoramic view of Curiosity's surroundings that the camera will provide over the next day or two.

Until the panorama arrives, however, the postcard is giving scientists plenty to think about.

The north rim is the source of an alluvial fan – sediment washed downslope – that researchers would like to investigate, since habitability requires the presence of liquid water.

"All those materials derive from erosion of those mountains," Grotzinger says. "You're looking toward the watershed that delivered those materials."

Much closer to Curiosity – literally within a few lengths of the rover's seven-foot-long arm – are scars left by the descent stage's rocket engines. The exhaust brushed aside a thin layer of soil to reveal what the researchers say is bedrock.

Typically, rovers have had to scratch away surface material with their wheels to reach lower layers.

"Here we get a freebie," Grotzinger says. "We see our first glimpse of bedrock."

The crater's Mojave-like look "makes you feel at home," Grotzinger says. "We're looking at a place that feels real comfortable. What's going to be interesting is to find out all the ways that it's different."

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