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Rover reveals more of Martian peak

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / Ed Truthan

A section of the color panorama from Curiosity rover's Mastcam imaging system shows the layered rock along the ridge of the mountain known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp, with a dark dune field closer to the camera. The color has been adjusted to provide a white-balanced, Earthlike view.

Newly received images from NASA's Curiosity rover are filling out the high-resolution view of its surroundings at Gale Crater on Mars — and providing an up-close look at the six-wheeled craft's nuclear power source. But there are even more impressive vistas yet to come.

Some of the new imagery was actually taken by Curiosity's Mastcam color camera more than a week ago, on Aug. 8-9, also known as Sol 3 of Curiosity's mission. It didn't take long for the rover to transmit 130 low-resolution thumbnails, each measuring 144 by 144 pixels. Those were assembled and released as a 360-degree panorama on Aug. 9. But the high-resolution versions, at 1,200 pixels square, have taken a lot longer to send back. Today's additions to the jigsaw puzzle include pictures of the layered rock on the flank of a 3-mile-high (5 kilometer-high) mountain known Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp.

The image wizards who frequent the forums at UnmannedSpaceflight.com pounced on the fresh pictures and incorporated them into their own panoramic views. One long strip was done up by California graphic designer Ed Truthan in two flavors: the red-tinged view that Curiosity saw on Mars, and the white-balanced view that earthlings would see if the scene were transported to our planet.

Another strip, which includes some of the rover hardware, was offered by British researcher James Canvin. Two pieces of the puzzle are still missing from the central area of the image, and a horizontal line in the image was left behind as an artifact of the image-stitching process.

"I'll fix this and add some final touches when the final two images are available," Canvin promises.

If you click on the preview image below, you'll find some impressive high-resolution views on Canvin's Martian Vistas website.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / James Canvin

A scaled-down version of a high-resolution panorama from NASA's Curiosity rover is still missing a few pieces. Click on the image for larger-format files.

The most impressive part of Curiosity's surroundings is expected to be Mount Sharp's peak, which would rise above the frame at the center of Canvin's panorama. We haven't seen a color view of the summit yet, but the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., says that getting pictures of the mountain's upper reaches is one of the top targets for Mastcam. We'll hear more about how that's coming along during a teleconference scheduled for 1:30 p.m. ET (10:30 a.m. PT) on Friday. 

In the meantime, here are two more must-see vistas that have just become available. The photograph is a view from the black-and-white Navcam system, looking toward the back of the rover. The cylinder with fins on it is Curiosity's radioisotope thermal generator, a power source that uses plutonium as fuel. The RTG is designed to keep Curiosity's batteries charged up not just during the two-year primary mission, but perhaps for decades longer. The video is a compilation of high-resolution imagery from Curiosity's Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, which provides a 23-second taste of the rover's ride to the surface.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

A view from the Navcam system on the Curiosity rover's camera mast looks toward the back of the rover. The most prominent hardware is the probe's radioisotope thermal generator, or RTG, which uses radioactive plutonium to generate electricity. The fins serve as radiators for heat from the RTG. The picture also shows black bits of Martian debris that were thrown onto the rover's deck during landing. The device that looks like a joystick at lower right is a sundial, which is used as a color calibration target. The original picture has been processed to enhance brightness.

High-resolution imagery shows 23 seconds from the Curiosity rover's descent to the Martian surface, as recorded by the MARDI camera. Be sure to boost resolution to its maximum. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBC News' other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.