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Curiosity offers new 360-degree panoramic views of strangely familiar rock formations on Mars

Good things are worth the wait. More than four years after it landed on the Red Planet, NASA’s Curiosity rover is still beaming back images of its explorations — including a brand-new set of panoramic shots that highlight how much the features on Mars occasionally resemble our own backyard. While the shots themselves were taken at the beginning of August, scientists have just finished stitching them together to create a 360° panorama of the Martian landscape around the rover. Curiosity is hanging out at the Murray Buttes right now, which are named to honor Bruce Murray (1931-2013), Caltech planetary scientist and former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The panorama is available as a static image and a .gif, but for the best experience, you really should check out this click-to-pan 3D widget that NASA put out. This is what it looks like on Mars. And it really is click-to-pan. I read “click to pan” and thought “nah, that’s a YouTube video,” but then I tried it, and it did!

The Murray Buttes have been a planned stop on Curiosity’s route for years because they present an interesting opportunity to study different types of rock strata. The buttes and mesas in this specific region have proven to be more resistant to wind erosion. Just like on Earth, sandstone subjected to wind erosion creates formations like arches, mesas and buttes, and the age of the formations can be discerned by their layers. While the rover has previously examined samples from early in Mars’ past, the age of the layers it can access has been decreasing as it continues to ascend Mount Sharp; with decreasing age come higher levels of opaline silica and also tridymite, which is uncommon on Earth.

One goal of the current mission is to examine how freshwater lake conditions on the planet changed as it aged. We’ve now established that Mars was once home to running water, billions of years ago, but much about the planet’s transition from the relatively warm world it once was to the barren, arid landscape of today remains uncertain. Understanding how Mars shifted from one state to the other would help us understand planetary evolution over long periods of time. It could even be useful in our own efforts to detect habitable planets around other stars. Curiosity also continues to monitor the Martian environment — and while you might not think much changes on an arid hunk of lifeless rock, the probe has previously detected methane emissions that persisted briefly before vanishing. There’s no proof that the methane came from an organic source, but the planet isn’t a static, unchanging environment either.

The current plan is for Curiosity to continue exploring higher altitudes on Mount Sharp before it heads elsewhere. As it keeps on doing science on the Red Planet, Curiosity will help to uncover critical information about what Martian chemistry is like, and what it takes to make Mars habitable. Sooner or later, we’re bound and determined to get there, and we’d rather like it to be manageable when we do.

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