Curiosity Drills On Mars!

After all the tests and preparations, Curiosity has drilled her first proper hole on, and into the rock of Mars. I don’t think it’s unfair or overly melodranatic to say that a new era of planetary science, and exploration, has begun.

The hole Curiosity has drilled isn’t that much to look at, to be honest…

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…in fact it’s quite small, as you can see if you look at this pic of my hand with the actual diameter of the hole (1.6cm) drawn onto it…

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…put the two together and you can see just how big, or rather how small, The Hole really is…

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…but that’s SO not the point. This isn’t just a hole. This is a hole dug out of ancient, ancient bedrock on an alien world, a world far, far away from Earth. If you look west, you can see that world after sunset tonight, looking like a tiny spark of orange light just above the treetops, almost lost in the marmalade glow of the twilight. Just think about that for a moment… we sent a machine across space, across many, many millions of miles, and it is now drilling holes in that planet. The rock and dust dug out of those holes is then brougfht into the machine and put through an unbelievably complicated set of tests in an almost impossibly complicated miniature laboratory. That would have been science fiction a decade ago. But it’s happening right now, as you read this.

But as amazing as that is, even more amazing is the fact that this isn’t new. It’s being done on a new, fascinating, exotic and exciting place, for sure, but we’ve been doing this for literally thousands of years…

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No matter how far we travel across our solar system, or across our Galaxy, or far out into the universe, wherever we go, on whichever planets, moons, asteroids and comets we land on Out There in the Great Black, we’ll dig or drill into their rocks and ices and leave our mark on them in the shape of holes. It’s Mankind’s basic “I woz here” tag.

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Next, MSL Curiosity will test the rock and dust she dug out of Mars when she made that hole, and then she’ll radio her results back to us here on Earth. I can’t wait to find out what she tells us…

 

Time to Drill…

Things have started moving in Gale Crater. It’s about to get serious.

For the past couple of weeks Curiosity has been taking a long, hard look at an area of rock on the floor of Gale Crater, looking for a suitable place to use her drill for the first time. In this fantastic panorama assembled by UMSF’s Damien Bouic you can see the rover studying the rocky area with the instruments on the end of its robot arm… click on it to enlarge it, it’s a beauty…!

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So, soon Curiosity will be drilling into that rock, the last test of a major rover system left I think. This is going to be very exciting for planetary scientists, because they’ll be able to sample and study, for the first time, the minerals beneath the surface of rocks on Mars. The results won’t look like muh to us – graphs with squiggles and lines, and error bars and whatever on them – but they will tell planetary geologists SO much about Mars that I bet they’re not sleeping they’re so excited by what’s to come.

Anyway, that drill… Curiosity is a HUGE thing, as you know, a real monster truck on Mars! Nuclear powered… laser gun… wheels as big as a family car’s… it must have a stonking great drill on it, right? Like this kick-ass rover from the much-maligned but brilliant film “Armageddon”..?

a rover

Er, not quite. Here, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is the drill that Curiosity will be using…

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I know what you’re thinking… “They’re going to drill into Mars with THAT?!?!?!” Well, yes, they are, and the reason why it doesn’t have to look like one of Harry Stamper’s asteroid-excavating monsters is because it doesn’t have to go anywhere near as deep down, and, of course, BECAUSE IT’S REAL!!! :-) Things in science fiction films are always bigger than they would need to be in real life, usually because sci fi films have bigger budgets than most space missions…

Anyway, let’s take a closer look at that drill bit, courtesy of MSL’s ChemCam camera…

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I think we can tidy that up a bit, hang on…

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Wow.. that looks rather… um… oh, how to say this politely…

Crude?

No, that’s not crude. That’s effecient. It looks that way because it has a job to do, and that job isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s a job we’ve ben doing for many thousands of years.

When I saw that picture it rang a bell with me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then this morning I went onto UMSF and there was an image created by my great Australian mate AstroO, who had absolutely nailed it…

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Oh my god… look at that… how powerful an image is that?!?! Just consider the gulf in time between those two images, how many generations have passed between them being taken. Just think, there’s a good chance that the person who made and then used that stone blade on the left looked up at the night sky and saw Mars shining in it, a star as red as the blood that covered the blade as it was used to hack and slice meat from the bones of animals they killed for food. And then, who knows how many tens of thousands of years later, a piece of metal, forged by distant descendants of that hunter, but keeping the same basic shape, is now going to be used ON that blood red “star”, to feed our hunger for knowledge. That’s a hell of a thing isn’t it? A hell of a thing.

A couple of years ago my amazing friend Bev – also Australian! – sent me a present for my birthday, which, when I opened it, absolutely blew me away…

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Yes, a stone blade, just like the one in AstroO’s brilliant image. I keep that blade near my computer, and look at it often, it’s one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever been sent. Whenever I look at it I feel connected to the past in a quite spooky, quite glorious way. I take it from the box and feel the weight of it in my hand, turning it over and over, admiring the workmanship, trying to imagine what thoughts were going through its maker’s head as they carefully chipped away at it, fashioning a blade which they would use for keeping themselves and their family alive. When I saw that drill bit on the end of Curiosity’s drill I couldn’t help feeling a connection with it too, the same sort of connection. That is a tool, made by someone – probably more than one person, I know, but a person designed it, and it was probably finished off by a single person, working at a machine or a computer, getting it just right, just perfect – to do a job, but on a totally different planet, far, far away from Earth.

When I look as AstroO’s picture, you know what else I think? I think “Hey, we turned out okay didn’t we?” I know that Mankind has its problems, and large numbers of our troubled species are absolute nutters who find perverse joy in slaughtering their fellow men and women, but the vast majority of us are decent, and help each other, and work hard to make a good life for ourselves and our loved ones. I look at that image and it hits me just how far we HAVE come. Today’s papers are full of religious fanatics, terrorist nutters, greedy bankers, overpaid sportsmen and abused children. It’s easy to believe Mankind is bankrupt, that we’re a waste of space, that our society is doomed and Earth would be better off without us. But look at that picture again. With all our faults, with all our troubles, we still dare to dream amazing dreams, we still reach out towards almost impossible goals, and we succeed.

Many UFO fanatics believe that we’re being monitored by alien beings right now, that their spacecraft are up in orbit, cloaked from our view, and from them they watch over everything we do. If that’s true, they must be very confused by us, seeing pictures like that. Just imagine this morning’s  conversation on the Bridge between their versions of Kirk and Spock, as they peered at AstroO’s image on the big screen…

“So, Science Officer Thargggg, let me get this straight: you’re telling me that the same stupid monkey species which has built enough nuclear weapons to destroy their world a hundred times over, and has created plagues that could wipe themselves out, the ssme species that straps bombs to their females and children and deliberately blows them up, made THAT too..?”

Well, yes, Captain Zlott, we did. Go figure.

One day Curiosity will be in a museum on Mars, displayed lovingly in the glow of spotlights and softlights, for people from across the whole solar system to see. I hope that, in a case next to her, there’ll be one of the stone age blades her builders’ ancestors made all those thousands of years ago. I’ll even let them have mine if they want. I’m sure Bev wouldn’t mind, would you Bev?

I must admit I’ve been getting rather bored by Curiosity of late. The images have been on my screen, but they haven’t spoken to me like they always used to. But looking at that little drill bit sent a shiver up my spine, it really did.

We’re going to drill on Mars. On Mars!

:-)

Note: if you want to know lots of technical details about MSL’s drill, Emily Lakdawalla has written a brilliant piece about it on her blog for the Planetary Society…

And I wrote about how we’re leaving our mark, as a species, on Mars, in a previous post here

 

Who needs a hammer…

…when you have a nuclear-powered, tractor-wheeled, laser-toting monster truck rover to drive over rocks and smash them to bits, like the Hulk with a bad head..?

People often say that one thing the rovers can’t do on Mars is look inside rocks, like a human geologist would do. Well, that’s not always true. Curiosity and Opportunity both have tools they can use to grind or drill a little way beneath the surface of martian rocks, to expose and study the minerals there, but creative driving can turn the rovers into weapons of scientific destruction, breaking open rocks to allow scientists a glimpse of the secrets hiding inside.

Opportunity did this last year, when she found and then drove over “Homestake”, a small exposed vein of the mineral gypsum at the northern end of Cape York…

before after

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Never one to be left out, Curiosity has been doing the same thing, and a couple of sols ago she ran over a rock which promptly shattered, scattering bits of itself in all directions, including one large piece highlighted in the previous post. Take a look at teh scene, with these images I’ve enhanced to bring out detail and texture…

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Looking forward to more “Hulk! Smash!” action from Curiosity…

A strange and beautiful place…

Yes, we’re back! I am sure some of you thought this blog had closed for business when posts dried up after Christmas, but no, you don’t get rid of us so easily! Apologies for the radio silence, but I was busy with a number of things – work, being ill, writing my blog all about Comets PANSTARRS and ISON – that kept me away.

And, yes, I’ll be perfectly honest, I just got bored with Curiosity and her mission, and was feeling no inspiration to write about it. I know that’s heresy coming from a self-confessed Mars fanatic, but it’s true. I just got sick of seeing the same rocks, the same ledges, the same teeny tiny dust dunes and the same dust scoops and spill. I was feeling like the fantastically exciting exobiological side of the mission was being quietly ignored at best and kicked under the table like a mewling kitten at worst, by people who seem strangely scared by the idea of just looking for life on other planets. That was really hacking me off, I’ll be honest, so I decided to just take a break from writing about Curiosity, and Gale, and come back when things – and the rover – started moving again.

And boy, have they! There was a media briefing this week, at which the MSL science team showed how the rover has found evidence that the area of the floor of Gale Crater across which MSL is currently travelling was once *drenched* in water, which is of course very exciting for the prospects of finding signs of past life here. Yes, I said the L word, so shoot me.

There was a lot of excitement amongst rover followers recently about a strange bright thing photographed embedded in one of the rocks, which did, I’ll admit, look a lot like a tiny shell of fragment of shell, but the rover team explained that it was just a large bright sand grain.

So, the rover is now in Yellowknife Bay, and is preparing to use its drill for the first time, which is very exciting. And Yellowknife Bay is a spectacular, beautiful place, with a lot of weird and wonderful geology, like this…

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See? What the hell is going on there? All those little pits and rings in the rock, very odd. I wish the MSL team would have someone on hand to just tap out a few words of explanation when a picture like that appears, it would be really useful.

Any of the MSL images returned recently have had the woo-woos screaming about how the rover has spotted life on Mars, but NASA are either keeping it a secret or are too dumb to spot it when it’s right in front of their faces. A few of the loudest alien hunters have been insisting that white areas seen on the rocks around this area are actually patches of lichen, but NASA aren’t admitting it. Right, that makes perfect sense – a space agency which desperately wants more money, has found life on Mars, but aren’t admitting it, even though such a discovery would solve all their budget problems in a moment because the discovery of life on Mars would lead to demands for follow-up manned missions there as soon as possible. Honstly, I could give up sometimes…

Curiosity is now taking a good long look at a little rock she spotted a day or so ago…

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When Curiosity took a closer look, she saw this…

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…and when she took an even CLOSER look she saw this… (note: I’ve sharpened this up and played about with the levels and contrast a bit just to bring out details on the rock…)…

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Oooh, that’s pretty isn’t it? What does that remind you of? Not lichen. I think that looks like “Homestake”, the vein of light mineral Opportunity found up near the northern end of Cape York last year… is that little rock covered in gypsum? That would make sense if this part of Gale Crater was indeed once “drenched” with water because gypsum forms in the presence of water, and through the action of water. Just click on that image and then on the link above it to the larger full resolution version when it appears, and take a good look at the rock in all its glory, it really is beautiful.

So, that’s what Curiosity has been getting up to, and yes, “Gale Gazette” is back. Coming soon – all the news about the long-awaited first use of the rover’s drill…

Christmas catch-up…

Haven’t updated the blog for a few days because, well, you know, IT’S CHRISTMAS!!!! Have to go AFK (look that acronym up, younglings!) sometimes… :-)

But, now the Big DFay is history, we can catch up on what Curiosity has been doing. Which is, basically, taking lots of pictures of rocks. Not just any rocks tho – very interesting looking rocks, with lots of mineral shinyness inside and under them. But we’ll come back to those. First, a couple of wide angle views showing where Curiosity is parked up at the moment… As ever, click on the image to bring up another page, featuring just that image, and then enlarge THAT by clicking the link just above it…

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Now, just before Christmas Curiosity took the most detailed images yet of one of the bizarre-looking “burst bubbles” we’ve been seeing now we’re inside Glenelg. Take a look at this…

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Love that. Haven’t got a clue what it *is*, but love it… :-)

Now, back to that mineraly goodness… take a look at this image (which is a stitched mosaic of two separate images), and look closely at the rocky ledge/overhang top left… and you’ll see there’s a quite beautiful bright mineral vein running through it…

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Computer… zoom in… and enhance…

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Oh, that’s pretty, isn’t it? C’monmission geologists, you *really* need to be telling us what you’re showing in these beautiful pictures. You’re being way, way too quiet.

…and finally…

Christmas has come and gone, but I’m hoping that on Christmas morning, somewhere in the world a space-mad boy or girl was sitting beside their Christmas tree and unwrapping a toy rocket, or a book, or a dvd, which will inspire them to go on and learn enough about space and astronomy to enable them to go to Mars one day, and visit and explore this amazing place for themselves…

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I hope you are all having a very Merry and safe Christmas!

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A Curious peek under the ledge…

Well, we’re all still here. The world didn’t end. What a shock. It’s almost as if the whole Mayan calendar thing was absolute bo****ks from the start. But I guess that as long as there are idiots in the world eager to embrace such entrail-reading mumbo-jumbo, and as long as they let brain dead conspiracy theorist nutters who actually feel excited by the prospect of the world ending (and, you know, billions of people – including themselves! – dying) onto the internet, these stories will be popular. By the end of the day some other wide-eyed, lunatic, tome-clutching uneducated tit will have picked another date for Armageddon and all the people who believed the Mayan thing will latch onto that instead. I wish they’d all just grow up, don’t you?

Meanwhile…

In the real world, you know, the world of science and technology, which is a stunning place, there IS something to feel excited about: we have two (yes, two!) rovers on Mars, seeing incredible things and sending back new photos daily for us to drool over daily. One, Opportunity, is a solar-powered geologist, and has survived an incredible 9 years (almost) on the Red Planet, driving to, around, into and back out of several craters during a fascinating expedition of scientific discovery which is yet, I think, to enjoy its greatest moment. The other rover, Curiosity, is a nuclear-powered, laser-toting, monster truck, and it is exploring a huge crater called Gale, with a great beast of a mountain in its centre. That’s something people should be shouting about! Especially when the rover drives up a ledge, peers into the shadows beneath it, and sees this

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Look at those beautiful mineral veins running through the rock.

Mayan calendars? Ha. Veins of minerals shining and glittering in an ancient martian rock? Now THAT’S worth looking at!

“What a piece of junk…”

Curiosity has been sending back some absolutely jaw-dropping images of martian rocks since the last time you looked in… or are they rocks? Has Curiosity found a spaceship on Mars? Not just any spaceship, but a famous one..?

Here’s a wide angle view of the area Curiosity is now taking a good close look at… You can see she’s extended her robot arm to begin her in-depth study…

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Here’s what that rocky slab looks like up close… VERY close…

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Now, let’s pull back and see this area properly… enlarge in the usual way (well, the new WordPress way – click image/image appears on its own page/click on link above image to see full size version) but prepare yourself, this is gorgeous…

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See? Told you. But wouldn’t that eb even *more* gorgeous in colour..? Oh yes…

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Does that look familiar? Remind you of anything? How about…

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:-)

The beauty of Barsoom…

Mars offers us beauty on many scales. Stand on Mars with me now, beside Curiosity, in your imagination, and take a look around. Look up and see the huge, wide open butterscotch-hued sky…

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Look down at your feet and see the chips and shards and jagged broken pottery-like fragments of stone covered in the ever-present ochre dust…

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Look up again, and sweep your gaze around the horizon, taking in the view of the floor of Gale Crater, with its rises and hummocks, ledges and outcrops, dust dunes and boulders, with thousands, no, tens of thousands, no, hundreds of thousands, no, millions of rocks and stones scattered all around…

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Now take a look over there, yes, over there, on that flat plate of rock. What is that? Go over and take a closer look… kneel down, slowly in the low gravity, and stare into it through your helmet’s dust-streaked visor… what is that…?

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What happened there? Was that a dome of rock that somehow fractured and collapsed in on itself like one of Oswin’s soufles? Or was it once a bubble of gas rising up from beneath the surface which popped, leaving a broken shell of thin rock behind? Or were there once dragons on Mars, great noble Barsoomian beasts with wings that stretched for hundreds of metres to allow them to fly in the thin martian air, and this is the fossilised remains of one of their eggs? Whatever it is, whatever it once was, it’s beautiful, and how you wish you could take off your helmet and see it properly, without the glass of the visor in the way, withoutt it being dimmed by dust outside and the mist of your breath inside… Then it would look something like this…

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That, my friends, is the beauty of Barsoom…

In praise of rocks…

Curiosity is now a photo-taking demon. Every day literally hundreds of new images come back, showing the spectacular scenery inside Gale Crater, and it’s easy to miss a day and miss out on some truly spectacular scenes. I check in with the images as often as I can, several times a day in fact, but still I know I’m missing stuff! But what I have seen and what I am seeing regularly is just spectacular, and it’s giving me a whole new appreciation for the science of geology. It’s also adding to my already high level of frustration that I don’t know more about geology myself, because I see the rocks, the dust dunes, and the surrounding hills, and I know nothing about them apartfrom the basics. It’s very frustrating, and quite saddening too.

The thing is, the images being returned by Curiosity are *so* busy, contain so *much* beautiful geology, that it’s tempting – and, after you’ve done it once, easy – to just skim over them visually, to kind of “speed read” them if you know what I mean. You pick out a rock or two, maybe drawn to its unusual shape, or colour, or the weird, freaky angle it’s laying at on the surface, but the rest? Just background noise, geological static. Next image please…

Take this next image for instance. It’s actually a mosaic I’ve stitched together out of several individual frames… if you want to see it in all its glory, click on it to enlarge it but remember, for some reason WordPress has changed the way it enlarges images, so you’ll have to click on another link *above* the image when you see it on its own page… I know, bizarre, but what can you do…?

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Now that’s a VERY busy picture, isn’t it? So many rocks! SO many different shapes, and sizes, textures and angles… a couple of those rocks jump out at you because they look so striking, but there’s so much clutter there that it’s a bit like a martian Magic Eye picture (ha! showing my age now! Younger readers – Google search for “Magic Eye”, they were all the rage back in the Ice Age…!). So what I did was pull a few rocks out of that image and isolate them, beneath it, to highlight just what a bewildering and beautiful variety of rocks and stones there are here in Gale…

rocks of gale crater

Ah, now you can see… look at the differences! There are flat, platey, round-edged, heavy-looking slabs of smooth rock that look like fat paving stones… there are angular shards of much darker rock, with rough edges and roughened faces that look like debris from a bombed-out building… there are plates of rocks stacked on top of each other… there are long, sharp blades of much lighter stone.. there are rocks with banding visible on their sides…

WHY?!?!? Why are they different? Why do they look the way they do? What stories do these rocks tell the mission scientists? I wish they’d tell us that. I wish someone would give us a Beginner’s Guide to Martian Geology, taking a picture like that one of mine, above, and just patiently go over it, picking out rocks, explaining why they look the way they do, how they got to look that way, what studying them can tell us about Mars… That’s not me being lazy, I could do that myself I know, with a couple of hours tapping away on Google, but wouldn’t it be great if a mission scientist did that? It would be like being taken to Mars, in person, by a geologist, and having them walk around the floor of Gale Crater with you, stopping to look at rocks and, kneeling down beside them, tell their story. I would love that, and I’m sure many other people would, too.

Take this image for example, another multi-frame mosaic I’ve stitched together…

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…or this one, which I’m particularly pleased with…

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Why are those rocks so dark, and why are they so different to the rocks scattered around them? That fascinates me!

If you – yes, you, reading this right now! – are a geologist who fancies talking us through what we’re seeing, let me know, that would be fantastic!

The gateau layers of Gale…

Been a few days since I updated this blog, I know, but sometimes real life gets in the way! But since the last post Curiosity has been driving, and is now on the edge of an area called “Yellowknife Bay”, which is absolutely stunning. Here’s a magnificent panoramic mosaic put together by the incredibly talented Damien Bouic…

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Now that’s pretty stunning, right? But if you stretch it vertically to bring out subtle details in the topography… well, you get this…

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Wow… anyone else thinking “dried up river”? That’s beautiful, isn’t it?

But as beautiful as that is, when you look at some of these features in colour, well, they just leap out of the screen, grab you by the throat, and demand to be marveled at. Take a look at the following panoramic mosaics I’ve put together – you’ll need to click on them to enlarge them, and even then they might not enlarge properly because something has changed with WordPress’s display and I don’t know what yet or how to fix it. Anyway, take a look as best you can at the following… and seriously,  take a moment or two to just pour and drool over the many different rock types, textures and shapes, and be astounded by the sheer epic, noble beauty of the Barsoomian landscape…

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Let’s look at some of those features in 3D…

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So, as you can see, Curiosity has some *serious* geology ahead of her. Somewhere up ahead is a rock destined to go down in history as the first rock to be drilled by the first nuclear powered Mars rover…

Speaking of rocks, some more images of those strange ‘rock rings’ have come down, and we can now see them more clearly. I’ve put together two cropped images showing two of the features. I can’t help thinking they look like they were once complete stone domes, which have now all but collapsed and eroded away…

half domes

And there are much bigger whole rocks here too…

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Fascinating, absolutely fascinating. SO much work to do here, so many incredible sights to see…

Go get ‘em Curiosity!