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A conspiracy theorist might think that NASA's newest Mars rover, the Curiosity, is actually just in the middle of a desert on Earth.
Over the weekend, the Curiosity, which landed early on Aug. 6 after an eight-month flight, started sending back a 360-degree high-resolution panorama of its surroundings.
As the accompanying NASA news release noted, the images show "a landscape closely resembling portions of the southwestern United States."
At a news conference on Wednesday, John P. Grotzinger, a professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology who serves as the mission's project scientist, compared the view with a place just a few hours' drive from Pasadena, Calif., and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the rover's birthplace.
"You would really be forgiven for thinking that NASA was trying to pull a fast one on you," he said, "and we actually put a rover out in the Mojave Desert and took a picture - a little L.A. smog coming in there."
He added, "To a certain extent, the first impression you get is how Earth-like it seems."
Where the Curiosity actually sits is a 96-mile-wide crater named Gale near the Martian equator.
To the north, the images show part of the crater rim that is believed to have been eroded by flowing water.
To the south is a 3.4-mile-high peak that the scientists call Mount Sharp, which Curiosity is meant to reach and to climb. By investigating the layers of sedimentary rock on Mount Sharp, mission scientists hope to reconstruct the climate and environment of early Mars and tell whether it could have been once been habitable for life.
The photos also show marks that Curiosity has made at the landing site. As Curiosity was lowered to the surface of Mars, blasts from the descent-stage engines created indentations in the nearby soil, exposing the bedrock below. This exposed bedrock is likely to be one of the first areas of scientific exploration on the rover's planned two-year journey.
"What's cool about this is that we got some free trenching," Dr. Grotzinger said. After the flawless landing, the first week of operations of the rover on the ground also proceeded almost perfectly, too, as engineers started checking out the rover's system, deployed the high-gain antenna, and raised the mast that holds the cameras.
So far, no significant trouble has arisen. The weather instrument experienced a problem that engineers figured out a day later.
The rover's internal temperatures are slightly warmer than expected, possibly because the crater is warmer than predicted or because NASA's computer models of Curiosity were not quite right.
"We're still looking why that is," said Jennifer Trosper, one of the mission managers.
Worries about overheating could put constraints on when certain instruments can be used. But the heat is also a boon, reducing the energy Curiosity needs to warm up its joints and wheels before moving.
Over the weekend, NASA upgraded the software that runs the rover's computer.
On Monday morning, President Obama called to congratulate the Curiosity team. "You guys are examples of American know-how and ingenuity," he said. "It's really an amazing accomplishment."
He did have one request for them: "If in fact you do make contact with Martians, please let me know right away," the president said.
"I've got a lot of other things on my plate, but I suspect that that would go to the top of the list. Even if they're just microbes, it will be pretty exciting."