Curiosity rover offers 360-degree virtual tour of Mars in 1.3 billion pixel composite photograph

By James Maynard , Jun 20, 2013 01:51 PM EDT

Mars has been imaged like never before in the first-ever billion-pixel image taken of the Red Planet. This offers a full 360-degree view of Mars, with one version offering people a virtual tour of the alien world as seen by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), or Curiosity rover.

The image, released June 19, is composed of 896 separate images, containing a total of 1.3 billion pixels. The pictures to create the new image were taken by three different cameras aboard the Mars craft from October 5 to November 16, 2012. The component images included 850 from the rover's Mast camera, 21 from the Mastcan wide-angle camera and 25 frames from the navigation camera, which were largely pictures of the rover.

Curiosity took the photos from the Rocknest site in Gale Crater where the science laboratory first processed sand and dust, looking for signs of water and possible evidence of ancient life.

NASA has made this image available in two forms, cylindrical and panoramic. The cylindrical view offers viewers a chance to pan and zoom around a complete circle, like a virtual tour of a (very large) studio apartment. Panoramic mode is composed of separate images which can be zoomed in upon to get a closer look.

"It gives a sense of place and really shows off the cameras' capabilities. You can see the context and also zoom in to see very fine details," Bob Deen of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said.

In the background of part of the view is Mount Sharp. This mountain, 3.4 miles high, is where Curiosity is about to head to continue its mission.

The variations in lighting and atmospheric quality are due to it being taken over many different time of days and conditions.

Curiosity, which has 17 cameras, along with 10 science experiments, first landed on the planet August 5, 2012.

Although this is the first billion-pixel image ever released by NASA of the surface of Mars, a similar mosaic image was previously created by Andrew Bodrov, a private photographer, although he only used about half as many images as in the new official image. Creating his earlier mosaic gave the photo enthusiast some insight into what it took NASA to their newest image.

"[The camera] is only two megapixels, which by today's standards is not huge. Of course, flying these electronic components from Earth to Mars, and having them survive the radiation and other hazards, means that they were not able to just use off-the-shelf cameras," Bodrov said.

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