On Monday, NASA released this stunning 360-degree panorama captured by the Mars Curiosity rover, as it journeyed through the dramatic Murray Buttes region. The immersive scene is compiled from several stills captured by Curiosity's Mast Camera on September 4, just a few weeks after the rover celebrated the fourth anniversary of its touchdown on the Red Planet.
Splintered, scale-like rocks are visible in high resolution around Curiosity's frame, while the stacked sedimentary formations loom in the middle distance. Entombed within the buttes are cross-bedded layers of sandstone deposited by millions of years of Martian wind storms, which Curiosity avidly studied and photographed as it passed through Murray Buttes.
On the horizon behind this uncannily Earthlike mesa, the distant rim of Gale Crater appears ghostly behind a haze of dust. It's a breathtaking view that communicates that Mars is truly a tangible location, and we have some fantastically sophisticated robotic eyeballs through which to ogle it. For the Curiosity team, these virtual visits to the Martian surface have opened up new ways to study and appreciate this neighboring world.
"What's really powerful about this is when you stop to think, 'this is all real,'" Alex Menzies, software lead for augmented and virtual reality development at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told me earlier this year.
"These are all real images made from real photons bouncing off the Martian surface. This is what it is actually like to look around on another planet. Mars stops being this abstract blurry orb in the sky and it becomes a place that you can visit."
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