These are the first color images of NASA's Curiosity rover and its immediate surroundings on the Red Planet, released just hours ago. The photographs were recently acquired by HiRISE, the most powerful camera we've ever sent to another planet, and holy crap are they stunning.

Jaw-dropping, color-enhanced views await you below the fold. Trust us — this is something you need to see.

The photo featured up top is wonderful in its own right, offering us an unprecedented view of Curiosity and its landing site. According to HiRISE principle investigator Alfred McEwen, hues have been enhanced to show subtle variations in color in the rover's vicinity, which he says result from different types of materials. "The descent stage blast pattern around the rover," for example, "is clearly seen as relatively blue colors (true colors would be more gray)."

But the rover itself is only part of what makes this latest batch of images so striking. Equally impressive is the view these photos afford us of Curiosity's surroundings, including the unexplored terrain that lies south of Curiosity's landing site, closer to Mount Sharp. And that's where this image comes in. Dear readers, do yourself a huge favor and click on the photo to enlarge it, or better yet, click here to download a hi-res version for yourself; you'll be glad you did.

This incredibly vibrant (and incredibly tall) view of the planet surface "shows the terrain around the rover's landing site within Gale Crater on Mars," explains McEwen. He continues:

Colors were enhanced to bring out subtle differences, showing that the landing region is not as colorful as regions to the south, closer to Mount Sharp, where Curiosity will eventually explore.
The dark dune fields lying between the rover and Mount Sharp can be seen in the lower portion of the picture. Mount Sharp is out of view, below the image frame. The rover is about 980 feet (300 meters) from the bottom of the picture.

Mount Sharp may be Curiosity's ultimate scientific target, but there's a lot of geologically interesting features between it and the rover's current position, many of them outcrops that could very well contain the clues that will help NASA scientists deduce whether Mars' past was a watery (and, potentially, life-sustaining) one.

All images courtesy of HiRISE; for more information on the HiRISE project, check out our in-depth interview with principle investigator Alfred McEwen