First color 360-degree panorama from Curiosity

By Phil Plait | August 9, 2012 1:05 pm

The engineers and scientists at JPL released the first color panorama of Mars taken by Curiosity today! Here it is:

This view is made up of hundreds of small (144 x 144 pixel) thumbnails, so it’s not as high res as the images we’ll see soon, but it’s still very cool. I had to shrink it massively to fit the blog, so click it to see the full-blown 3600 x 750 pixel picture.

You can see parts of the rover around the bottom (remember that this is a bit oddly formatted since it’s showing the entire 360° view unwrapped into a rectangular frame), including a wheel at the right. In the middle bottom is the shadow of the mast where the NAVCAMs are (the cameras that took this panorama); that was raised yesterday and appears to be working great. You may be able to see that the surface of the planet is a bit brighter around the mast shadow; that’s an optical effect called heiligenschein – literally, "halo" or "holy shine" – and is common when you look at rough, sandy surfaces. Basically, the sand and dust preferentially reflect sunlight back in the direction it came, so the surface looks brighter around the shadow of your head (or in this case, the mast). Also, due to the viewing angle, you don’t see shadows around rocks and such on the surface in that direction, so it makes the ground appear brighter.

One thing I want to show in detail though is the patch of Martian surface to the upper right:

This is pretty interesting! The ground may have been disturbed by the rocket exhaust from the skycrane as it hovered over the surface and lowered the rover to the ground. What’s revealed here is pure Mars, though! The red color of the planet comes from iron oxide – rust! – in the form of very fine grain dust, like talcum powder. The rocks tend to be basaltic, a grayer color, but they can appear red if they are coated in a layer of the finer dust. If the dust gets blown off, you can see the blue-gray basalt underneath. That happens when dust devils whirl across the landscape, for example, leaving gray curlicues on the reddish-ochre fields.

Under these rocks and dust appears to be bedrock, the floor of Gale crater. Some long-ago impact carved out this 150-km-wide pit, overturning gigatons of rock and basically laying out a geographic history of Mars. That’s one big reason this site was chosen; we get all that for free just for going there. And there appears to be lots of evidence of water flow here eons ago; the way the rocks are distributed indicates flowing liquid, for example.

Mind you, as amazing as this image is, it’s still low res! We’ll be getting more and better pictures as time goes on. And never forget: this was sent by a one-ton nuclear-powered (soon to be) roving laser-eyed chemistry lab set down on another world 250 million kilometers (150 million miles) away!

Oh, the things we do.

Related Posts:

Video of Curiosity saying bye bye to its heat shield
Curiosity landing site: the whole mess
VIDEO of Curiosity’s descent… from the rover cam itself!
Curiosity update: Heat shield spotted!
Mars orbiter catches pic of Curiosity on its way down!
Humans send their Curiosity to Mars!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars

Comments (46)

  1. Roger Weeks

    Fixed image, thanks!

  2. Aleksandar

    I have a question to ask. Is this a real color camera and if it is, how come the sky is not pink as we are used to see in prior missions? At best it looks grey to me, if not blue. Ish. Could someone explain this to me?

  3. thetentman

    very cool, thank you Phil

  4. Ryan G.

    I’m pretty sure that is from the skycrane, you can see another patch on the upper left of the image.

  5. Dan_Veteran

    What is NASA hiding in the blacked out sections? Maybe the studio camera or the director’s chair. : )

    Seriously, why are there large black sections? Is it caused by the panorama effect or blind spots in the camera?

    Great pic.

  6. CatMom

    To Dan_Veteran: they’re hiding Marvin the Martian; he’s mooning (Phobos-ing?) the camera.

  7. Dakalok

    @Dan_Veteran: the picture is a mozaic (made of hundreds of small thumbnails, dixit le maître des lieux), so the black sections are simply parts that wasn’t shot/assembled in the mozaic.

  8. Steve (treelobsters)

    On previous missions, I’ve seen separate R G and B images in JPL’s raw image archive. Not seeing that this time; some of the raw images are in color. Are they transmitting them from Mars as full-color images now? And does that mean they’re also using a full-color detector in the cameras instead of taking three sequential images and swapping filters?

  9. Kullat Nunu

    Yes, unlike all previous missions, the MastCam camera snaps true color pictures.

  10. Wzrd1

    According to the MSL homepage, it is exposed bedrock that was cleared of dust by the sky crane rockets.
    The site also has a nice shot of before and after images of where the tungsten ballast weights impacted (no idea WHY they used tungsten).

  11. The Bobs

    @7 (no idea WHY they used tungsten)

    I presume it was density.

  12. Chip

    Great views! A couple of questions:
    If the red dust were hypothetically removed from all the basaltic rocks on Mars, the planet would likely appear a kind of grey-green from space?

    Even though Mars has been bathed in higher radiation levels for millions of years due to the absence of a magnetic field, this does not necessarily mean that Martian soil itself is highly radioactive?

  13. Georg

    (no idea WHY they used tungsten).
    @Wzrd1 :
    because tungsten is much cheaper than gold,
    both would have done the job almost identical:
    density about 19.5 g/cm³

  14. AndresMinas

    @ Kullat Nunu #6

    If it does, why the robot’s tire (below right of the picture) not black in color?

  15. Unnullifier

    @ #11 AndresMinas: This is just a crazy unfounded guess: the sky crane’s rockets may have disturbed some of the dust on the surface. And it gets crazier: some of that disturbed dust may have settled on Curiosity, including its tires.

  16. FMCH

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’m thinking a nice golf resort would look really good on that land in the upper right corner.

  17. David

    Sadly, the ash piles are where Mars’ last four Martians stood to welcome Curiosity.

  18. Muz

    Awesome!. I wonder if they’ll bother visiting the landing debris sites?

  19. Keith Hearn

    The black areas are where they didn’t bother to take pictures. Remember, this is a mosaic made of lots of smaller shots. They were trying to get a view of the landscape, not the rover, so they didn’t bother pointing the camera at it.

  20. Paulino

    to left you can see another blast area, where the martian cat was…

  21. Aaron

    I’m surprised by how much haze there appears to be.

  22. Robert

    If I didn’t know better I would think this was a shot of Earth. Any way this is a great panorama of Mars.

  23. VIP

    Certainly, there will be no rush to immigrate to Mars.

  24. Ethan

    Gives me chills

  25. Steve D

    #3: The sky at left and right (in the direction of the sun) is pink. This is no mystery to anyone who’s been in a terrestrial desert; the early morning sky in the direction of the sun is dazzling white from suspended dust. The actual color will depend on how much dust there is, here or on Mars.

    #13: the only radiation that will make something appreciably radioactive is neutron radiation. UV, X-rays and gamma rays won’t. Particle radiation will be mostly stopped by the atmosphere.

  26. MadScientist

    I can’t wait to see more (and better) pictures. :) Then of course there’s the science – but I’ll have to wait while people get data, analyze it, check the results, then go through the painful process of publication.

    My favorite heiligenschein is from locations above a cloud layer.

  27. pariah

    This picture actually made me feel a bit nostalgic.

    It looks very much like one of the many places I went camping as a teen (including the pink sky). I feel like I could just walk out, pitch a tent, and gaze at the stars when the sun sets in another hour or so.

    Then reality crashes in: It’s not the nearby desert, it’s not even Earth.

    Amazing to think that this panorama almost looks like “home” to me – the red dirt, the pink haze in the distance from dust being blown around… If I didn’t see the rover in the picture, I’d swear it was Earth.

  28. CB

    This image was actually taken by the Mast Cam, not the NavCams. The NavCams are b&w.

    The MastCams are actual color cameras with a Bayer filter over the CCD just like in your digital camera.

    They said that the first thing they were going to do with the MastCam is image the MastCam Calibration Target on the deck of Curiosity, so assuming they did that and calibrated their software, then this image is a very good representation of the “true” color of the Gale Crater landscape.

    They also said those bare patches are indeed bedrock exposed by the skycrane rockets.

    And also according to what they said, Unnullifier’s guess is correct. :)

    The science mission lead (Dan something I think?) also mentioned that the first color shot (from the MAHLI camera a couple sols ago) made him think of the Mohave Desert, and it was exciting for him to think that this was both alien and familiar.

    So awesome. :)

  29. CB

    @ Muz:

    Awesome!. I wonder if they’ll bother visiting the landing debris sites?

    This has been asked at the press briefings, and the answer is basically “no”. They actually want to avoid the other parts because of possible contamination (especially the skycrane).

    The tungsten ballasts that were ejected high in the atmosphere would be interesting to investigate because they are inert and would have made some nice excavations, but unfortunately landed far downrange and would require going way out of their way to reach. John Grotzinger (that’s his name, not ‘Dan’ lol) said it wouln’t be “practical”.

  30. Foil Hat Man

    I have to think that Ray Bradbury would have been fascinated by these images. RIP.

  31. Alex

    All my brain can seem to say is “YAY!”. Not profound, but to the point.

  32. dessy

    These images are not completely ‘true’ colour. When they released them, NASA said they had been ‘lightened’ somewhat. The originals were considerably darker due to lower ambient light levels at the time the photos were taken.

  33. CB

    They are not untouched images, but the color hasn’t been altered or touched up. Not like some Mars (and many astronomical) images.

  34. @19. Muz
    They won´t go near the debris so not to entangle themselfs in rubbish. You can imagine that the ropes of the parachute is a hazerd. So they stay well clear of it. One gust of wind…

  35. marko

    Phil, there was a shoutout for you and the Google hangout by visualization producer Doug Ellison in the August 9 Curiosity update news briefing, 19:55 in. I’m watching the canned streams at

    Doug’s presentation starts 17 minutes in, and him demoing the »Eyes on Mars« software (e.g. the donut sequence, zooming out, showing MRO and Odyssey, zooming in, showing a sunrise in timelapse) are well worth watching. Heck, the whole hour is worth watching. (-:

  36. Nigel Depledge

    Comment deleted.

  37. booboo

    I was surprised that no one noted (esp the BA) the heiligenschein in the MARDI descent images!

  38. Awe-inspiring. Just being able to view these preliminary images is already such a huge accomplishment.

  39. Dan_Veteran

    Thanks for the answers. Makes sense once someone else tells you.


  40. Cesar

    @CB: I saw the calibration images at (scroll to the end), so they did image the calibration target (a lot of times, with several different filters).

  41. buddy66

    “Oh, the things we do.”

    gulp …(tears in my eyes).

  42. Dave

    @ #11 AndresMinas: Close inspection of the larger image shows a settling of dust on the tires. That accounts for the reddish hue. Also, the image was adjusted and caused the tires to become a bit lighter, plus reflecting light off a smooth surface also brightens it a bit.

  43. Congratulations, cheers and thanks again Curiosity team. 8)

    PS. Click on my name here for Aussie ABC TV online coverage and recommend y’all scroll down to the interview with Dr Charley Lineweaver – 2.41 mark – quite funny and good. :-)

  44. Matt B.

    I don’t understand the attempt to calibrate colors using uncontrolled lighting. If the lighting were bluish, that would lead us to skew the colors to yellowish, etc. It might make sense to calibrate for every picture (or every hour), so that we’d be skewing colors to what they would look like in white light, and that would be good for science, but to do it just once, and then let light conditions change is incomprehensible to me.


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