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Mars Rover Curiosity's Panoramic Photo Depicts Its Epic Journey

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took photos from the Vera Rubin Ridge showing the interior and rim of Gale Crater. The <a href="https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/images/largesize/PIA22210_hires.jpg" target="_blank">full image</a> features 16 photos stitched together.
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took photos from the Vera Rubin Ridge showing the interior and rim of Gale Crater. The full image features 16 photos stitched together.

Here's a reminder that while you are out in the world buying groceries, picking up dry cleaning or catching up on The Crown, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is on the red planet doing work.

The nuclear-powered mobile science laboratory has been slowly roving across the surface of Mars since 2012, searching for evidence of the conditions that once made the planet capable of sustaining life. And earlier this week, while on a brief break from mountain climbing, Curiosity sent home a giant batch of photos showing what the rover has been up to over the last three months.

Mars mission members stitched together those images — taken from a vantage point of more than 1000 feet above the floor of the Gale Crater, where the rover first landed — to create this panoramic image:

"Even though Curiosity has been steadily climbing for five years, this is the first time we could look back and see the whole mission laid out below us," Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement.

"From our perch on Vera Rubin Ridge, the vast plains of the crater floor stretch out to the spectacular mountain range that forms the northern rim of Gale Crater," said Vasavada. The rover photographed the scene shortly before northern Mars' winter solstice, a season of clear skies, gaining a sharp view of distant details.

Curiosity's impressive panorama stretches across more than 30 miles and shows the route that the rover has taken since 2012.

Curiosity will soon go back to its previous work of drilling for soil samples, this time along the Vera Rubin Ridge. Drilling has been on hold while mission members at JPL figured out how to work around a mechanical problem with stabilizer points of the drill that appeared in late 2016. It seems the California team has come up with a solution that does not require using the stabilizing points, and instead moves the whole drill forward by motion of the robotic arm.

JPL is also preparing for the launch in May of a new lander called InSight. It'll be the first interplanetary launch from the West Coast. The trip to Mars takes about six months and once it's on the planet the lander will begin studying the deep interior of Mars. Using an ultra-sensitive seismometer it will listen for seismic waves bouncing through the planet created by marsquakes. That allows scientists to study what the rocky planet is made of.

Scientists have been interested in learning about the geological activity of Mars for some time, as Space.com reports, "both for the sake of science and for anyone who might go there."

"With NASA striving to take humans back to the Moon and onto Mars and beyond, understanding the geologic activity of the planet can aid in future mission planning," David Ferrill of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, explained.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.