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NASA snaps amazing photo of Curiosity rover trekking across Mars

A photo taken on January 2 reveals NASA’s Curiosity rover’s trekking accross the Red Planet.

Captured by the HiRise camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the powerful photo shows just how far the six-wheeled robot has traveled since landing in Mars’s Gale Crater in August 2012.

According to NASA, the image shows Curiosity’s touchdown site, dubbed Bradbury Landing. Near Bradbury Landing is a dark smudge, which NASA officials say is the remnants of the rover’s transport system and the skycrane that lowered Curiosity to the surface of Mars. The photo also shows Curiosity’s path towards Mount Sharp — its ultimate destination — marked by a pair of parallel dark streaks in the Red Planet’s surface. The bright spot toward the right of the photo? According to researchers, that is Curiosity itself, metallic and gleaming from miles away.

With advanced scientific instruments on board, Curiosity will study the crater’s present terrain and bring to light new data on the history of water on Mars–as well as new insight on the planet’s potential for supporting life. The latest image is not the first snapped of Curiosity from far above the surface of Mars. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, has been examining Mars with six science instruments since 2006, served as a key instrument during the rover’s descent into the Martian atmosphere. The MRO later provided NASA with the first images of the landing site, showing the exact location of the rover and the capsule that served as the delivery system.

Curiosity has been making its way through the Gale Crater toward Yellowknife Bay, a depression within the crater. There, it is set to use its technologically advanced drill for the first time and investigate evidence of water on Mars in mineral deposits. The drilling will serve as the first time NASA engineers will have a chance to study the planet’s subsurface environment.

The drilling, which is slated to commence in a few weeks, will allow scientists to study dust samples extracted from just below Mar’s surface. The collected samples will then be analyzed in Curiosity’s on-board labs, including an oven that has the ability to detect whether the planet once  held life. While scientists await the drilling in Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity won’t stop its travels there. The robot will continue on its path to its ultimate destination: the massive Mount Sharp, located in the Gale Crater’s center, which also has minerals that contain further evidence for the history of water on Mars. The many layers of Mount Sharp preserve a record of Mars’ changing environmental conditions over time, and Curiosity scientists hope to read this history as the rover climbs up through the mound’s foothills.

Meanwhile, the MRO continues to stuns its audience of top scientists and researchers at NASA. The orbiting camera has snapped a series of stunning images that have provided NASA engineers with a wealth of data to better understand the geology of Mars. Already the orbiter has captured images of a massive ancient riverbed once thought to be one of the most expansive river systems on the planet.  MRO has spent the better part of a decade orbiting Mars, searching for evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars for a long period of time. While other Mars missions have shown that water flowed across the surface in Mars’ history, it remains a mystery whether water was ever around long enough to provide a habitat for life.

During the rover’s first five months on the Red Planet, Curiosity’s has gone roughly 2,300 feet. Almost half a mile of travel might seem slow for almost half a year’s journey, but it’s a journey with immense purpose: to determine whether the Gale Crater was ever fertile ground for life. And with ten different analytical instruments and seventeen cameras aboard, Curiosity is well equipped to carry out its mission.