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Mars crater where rover landed looks ‘Earth-like’

An image from the Mars crater.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/AFP/Getty Images

An image from the Mars crater.

PASADENA, Calif. — The ancient Martian crater where the Curiosity rover landed looks strikingly similar to the Mojave Desert in California with its looming mountains and hanging haze, scientists said Wednesday.

‘‘The first impression that you get is how Earth-like this seems looking at that landscape,’’ said chief scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology.

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Overnight, the car-size rover poked its head out for the first time since settling in Gale Crater, peered around, and returned a flood of black-and-white pictures that will be stitched into a panorama.

It provided the best view so far of its destination since touching down Sunday night after nailing an intricate choreography. During the last few seconds, a rocket-powered spacecraft hovered as cables lowered Curiosity to the ground.

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In the latest photos, Curiosity looked toward the northern horizon. Nearby were scour marks in the surface blasted by thrusters, which kicked up a swirl of dust. There were concerns that Curiosity got dusty, but scientists said that was not the case.

‘‘We do see a thin coating of dust, but nothing too bad,’’ said Justin Maki, imaging scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $2.5 billion mission.

Scientists were giddy about the trenches because it meant Curiosity could drive up to them and start collecting samples once the science phase of the mission gets underway.

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Since landing, Curiosity has zipped home a stream of low-resolution pictures taken by tiny cameras under the chassis and a camera at the end of its robotic arm, which remained stowed. It also sent back a low-quality video glimpsing the last 2½ minutes of its descent.

The rover successfully raised its mast packed with high-resolution and navigation cameras. With the mast up, it can begin its shutterbug days in force including taking a 360-degree color view of its surroundings as early as Thursday.

Grotzinger said he was struck by the Martian landscape, which appeared diverse. There seemed to be harder bedrock underneath the gravelly surface, he said.

‘‘It kind of makes you feel at home,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re looking at a place that feels really comfortable.’’

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