Behold, the Curiosity rover's first color image of Mars. It's beautiful. Dusty, but beautiful. And yet, it might not even be the second-most exciting photograph we've received from Curiosity since it landed. Here's why.
Let me start by saying that this photo is obviously fantastic; there is, by definition, absolutely nothing "meh" about any photograph taken hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, so my apologies for coming off as flippant. Here, take this hi-res, "meh"-less version of the photo up top and we'll call it even.
The photo is notable for capturing some important milestones for Curiosity. Released just hours ago by NASA, this dust-caked view of the terrain north of the rover's landing site was acquired on the afternoon of "Sol 1" (the first Martian day after landing), and is the first image to be photographed using MSL's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). This rover has a total of seventeen cameras onboard; it's encouraging to see that its hazcams, its descent imager, and now MAHLI are all in working order. It also offers us one of our first views of the north wall and rim of Gale Crater, the 96-km wide impact basin where Curiosity touched down.
A brief word on color. Color is great. Color gives a photograph a sense of tangibility, and its viewer the oft-sought sense of immersion. When NASA released a photo of Mars last month that they called "the next best thing to being there," that photo was in color.
But a photograph's color scheme is never as important as its subject. With that in mind, this image may not even be Curiosity's second-most exciting photo of Mars; because let's face it, the first photos of the rover's wheel and shadow, captured by the HazCam and transmitted to Earth in the early hours of August 6th, were nothing short of electrifying.
But what image could possibly compare to Curiosity's very first photographs — the images that told the world Curiosity is here, and it is safe? This image right here:
This is Curiosity's very first view of Aeolis Mons, a.k.a. Mount Sharp, from inside Gale Crater. Sharp is Curiosity's primary scientific target. In other words: This is it. This is what we traveled over 350 million miles for.
The massive mound rests at the center of Gale Crater, its central peak soaring 18,000 feet above the northwest basin where Curiosity currently resides. Eighteen thousand feet. That's taller than California's Mt. Whitney; higher, even, than portions of Gale Crater's outer rim. Images of the crater taken from orbit reveal that exposed layers of Mount Sharp contain different minerals depending on their elevation. These layers of rock and soil, known as strata, are like the pages of a book that, collectively, encompass billions of years of Martian history. Individually, however, each layer provides a unique glimpse at a specific point in the planet's geological past.
In the weeks and months to come, Curiosity will make its slow but steady journey up the base of Gale's mound, where minerals known to form in the presence of water have been identified. As it travels, it will sample layer upon layer of rock and soil. In doing so, the rover will provide us with a much better understanding of the ancient environments in which these layers formed, how they formed, and whether Mars is — or ever was — capable of supporting life.
This photograph is Curiosity's most thrilling yet because of what it represents: the rover's next conquest. In the distance, Sharp looms like the challenge that it is. It calls on Curiosity to act.