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'Do I look fat?' Curiosity rover checks its belly on Mars

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / Ken Kremer / Marco Di Lorenzo

A mosaic of photos taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA's Curiosity rover shows the underside of the rover and its six wheels, with Martian terrain stretching back to the horizon. The four circular features on the front edge of the rover are the lenses for the left and right sets of Curiosity's hazard avoidance cameras, or Hazcams. Because of the different perspectives used for different images, some of the borders of the photos don't line up precisely.

More than a month after landing, NASA's Curiosity rover is finally ready for its close-ups, and they're coming in bunches: After taking its own profile picture, the six-wheeled robot has snapped a series of images that show its flat-as-a-board belly.

Today's flood of photographs comes courtesy of the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, one of Curiosity's 17 cameras. The self-focusing, 1.5-inch-wide (4-centimeter-wide) camera is mounted on the end of Curiosity's robotic arm, and is designed to take up-close pictures of rocks and soil on Mars. It serves a purpose similar to that of a geologist's hand lens — hence its name.

MAHLI is undergoing a series of checkouts now that the 7-foot-long (2.1-meter-long) robotic arm has been limbered up. The rover is making its way to its first major destination: a geologically intriguing spot called Glenelg, which is about a quarter-mile (400 meters) from the spot in Gale Crater where Curiosity landed on Aug. 5.

The rover's $2.5 billion primary mission is aimed at determining whether Mars ever had the chemical constituents to support life. Glenelg will serve as a good warmup for the centerpiece of Curiosity's two-year trek: a climb up the slopes of a 3-mile-high mountain called Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp.

So far, all of Curiosity's instruments appear to be in great shape — with the exception of a wind-speed sensor that was apparently taken out of commission by a hail of pebbles kicked up during the rover's descent. Curiosity's handlers had worried that the pebbles might have damaged the MAHLI camera as well. Fortunately, the pictures taken over the past few days prove that MAHLI (pronounced like "Molly") is in great shape.

This mosaic of Curiosity's trim underside was put together by Ken Kremer, a New Jersey-based journalist, research chemist and photographer; and Marco Di Lorenzo, a physicist who is a high school educator and photographer in Italy. Kremer and Di Lorenzo are among the habitues of UnmannedSpaceflight.com, where image-processing gurus are having a field day with the MAHLI pictures. NASA's website for the Curiosity mission is also mad about MAHLI today. Check out these MAHLI masterpieces, plus a bonus panorama from Ken Kremer and a video from NBC Nightly News:

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

This picture shows just how much detail the MAHLI camera can pick up. It shows a one-cent coin and a few of the symbols printed on a calibration target mounted on Curiosity. The image was acquired from a distance of 2 inches (5 centimeters). The coin is a 1909 penny provided by MAHLI principal investigator Ken Edgett. "Everyone in the United States can recognize the penny and immediately know how big it is, and can compare that with the rover hardware and Mars materials in the same image," Edgett explained. "The public can watch for changes in the penny over the long term on Mars. Will it change color? Will it corrode? Will it get pitted by windblown sand?" Flecks of reddish Martian sand can already be seen on and around the penny. One of the images printed above the penny is a cartoon character called "Joe the Martian."

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

This image, captured by Curiosity's MAHLI camera over the weekend, shows a patch of ground measuring about 34 inches (86 centimeters) across. The size of the largest pebble, near the bottom of the image, is about 3 inches (8 centimeters).

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

A combination of images from the MAHLI camera provides a close look at the Curiosity rover's wheels, right down to the dirt stuck in the treads.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Ken Kremer / Marco Di Lorenzo

Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo produced this "colorized" version of a panorama looking back at the Curiosity rover's tracks on Sol 24 of its mission (Aug. 30). The panorama is based on black-and-white imagery from Curiosity's Navcam system. Missing patches of the Martian sky have been filled in. The lower reaches of Mount Sharp can be seen at the picture's left edge, and the rise of Gale Crater's rim stretches across the rest of the horizon.

NASA's Curiosity rover took a self-portrait on Mars, using a camera mounted on its robotic arm. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Update for 9:05 p.m. ET: Kremer points out that the pictures of Curiosity's underbelly are far sharper than similar underbelly images that were captured by the Spirit rover in 2009, when mission managers worried that it was hung up on a rock. He said the difference illustrates the "quantum leap" in capability between the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which were launched in 2003, and the Curiosity rover, which was sent toward Mars last year.

More vistas from Mars:

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 NBCNews.com's 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 controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.