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Mars rover beams back spectacular photos, NASA greeting

Mars rover: NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has beamed home some extraordinary images of Mount Sharp, the three-mile-high mountain near the rover's landing site. Curiosity has also sent back a greeting from NASA administrator Charles Bolden, the first human voice ever to be broadcast from another planet.

By Mike WallSPACE.com / August 28, 2012

This photo from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows the layered geologic history of the base of Mount Sharp, the three-mile-high mountain rising from the center of Gale Crater. Image taken on Aug. 23.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has beamed home the first human voice ever sent from another planet, as well as some spectacular new images of its Martian environs.

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The 1-ton Curiosity rover broadcast a greeting from NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, who congratulated the mission team for getting the huge robot to Mars safely. While the significance of the audio accomplishment is largely symbolic, NASA officials hope it presages a more substantial human presence on the Red Planet down the road.

"With this, we have another small step that's being taken in extending the human presence beyond Earth, and actually bringing that experience of exploring the planets back a little closer to all of us," said Curiosity program executive Dave Lavery, invoking the famous line late astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered from the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.

"As Curiosity continues her mission, we hope the words of the administrator will be an inspiration to someone who's alive today, who will become the first to stand upon the surface of the planet Mars," Lavery told reporters today (Aug. 27). "Like the great Neil Armstrong, they'll be able to speak aloud — in first person at that point — of the next giant leap in human exploration."

The mission team also unveiled today a stunning 360-degree panorama of Curiosity's Gale Crater landing site, showing in crisp detail some of the landforms scientists want the six-wheeled robot to explore. [Video: Curiosity's Martian Panorama]

Searching for habitable environments

Curiosity touched down inside Mars' huge Gale Crater on the night of Aug. 5, tasked with determining whether the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life.

For the next two years, Curiosity is slated to explore Gale and the crater's 3.4-mile-high (5.5 kilometers) central peak, the mysterious Mount Sharp. The $2.5 billion rover is outfitted with 10 different science instruments to aid its quest, including a rock-zapping laser and gear that can identify organic compounds — the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it.

Curiosity's ultimate destination is the base of Mount Sharp, where Mars-orbiting spacecraft have spotted signs of long-agoexposure to liquid water. These interesting deposits lie about 6 miles (10 km) from the rover's landing site as the crow flies.

The new 360-degree panorama, which is composed of 140 images snapped by Curiosity on Aug. 8 and Aug. 18, shows Mount Sharp's many-layered foothills, as well as its upper reaches stretching into a brown-tinged Martian sky. [Gallery: Photos from Curiosity's 4th Week on Mars]

The mosaic has Curiosity's scientists licking their chops.

"I think when those of us on the science team looked at this image for the first time, you get the feeling, 'That's what I'm talking about,'" said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, a geologist at Caltech in Pasadena. "That is why we picked this landing site."

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