Mount Sharp, also called Aeolis Mons, in the center of Gale Crater rises more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the crater floor location of Curiosity. Lower slopes of Mount Sharp remain a destination for the Curiosity mission, though the rover will first spend many more weeks around a location called "Yellowknife Bay," where it has found evidence of a past environment favorable for microbial life.
An instrument on Curiosity can check for any water that might be bound into shallow underground minerals along the rover's path. Today the Red Planet is a radiation-drenched, bitterly cold, bleak world. Enormous dust storms explode across the barren landscape and darken Martian skies for months at a time. But data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest that Mars once hosted vast lakes and flowing rivers.
"Gale Crater and its mountain will tell this intriguing story," says Matthew Golombek, Mars Exploration Program Landing Site Scientist from JPL. "The layers there chronicle Mars' environmental history."
A pair of mosaics assembled from dozens of telephoto images shows Mount Sharp above in dramatic detail. The component images were taken by the 100-millimeter-focal-length telephoto lens camera mounted on the right side of Curiosity's remote sensing mast, during the 45th Martian day of the rover's mission on Mars (Sept. 20, 2012).
A version of the mosaic that has been white-balanced to show the terrain as if under Earthlike lighting, which makes the sky look overly blue, is at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA16768. White-balanced versions help scientists recognize rock materials based on their terrestrial experience. The Martian sky would look like more of a butterscotch color to the human eye. A version of the mosaic with raw color, as a typical smart-phone camera would show the scene, is at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA16769.*