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Mars rover sends back 360-degree image of crater it’s in

Curiosity beamed back a 360-degree view of the crater in thumbnail photos on Thursday.
NASA/JPL=Caltech via Reuters
Curiosity beamed back a 360-degree view of the crater in thumbnail photos on Thursday.

PASADENA, Calif. — The photo-snapping rover Curiosity returned another postcard from Mars on Thursday — the first 360-degree color panorama of Gale Crater.

Scientists admired the sweeping vista. In the distance was the base of Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-high mountain, where the six-wheel rover is eventually supposed to go.

‘‘It’s very exciting to think about getting there, but it is quite a ways away,’’ said mission scientist Dawn Sumner of the University of California, Davis.

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Though it’s the sharpest view yet of the landing site, the panorama was stitched together from thumbnails while scientists waited for better quality pictures to be downloaded.

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Since safely landing Sunday night, Curiosity has dazzled scientists with peeks of its new home that at first glance seems similar to California’s Mojave Desert. The initial pictures were fuzzy and black-and-white. Earlier this week, the rover raised its mast containing high-definition and navigation cameras that have provided better views.

The car-size rover has remained healthy and busy testing its instruments. Several pebbles landed on the rover’s deck next to its radiation sensor during the final seconds of landing as it was lowered to the ground, but project managers said the stones posed no risk.

Curiosity ‘‘continues to behave basically flawlessly,’’ said mission manager Mike Watkins of the NASA Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the $2.5 billion mission.

Over the weekend, the rover will take a break so its computers can get a software upgrade in a process similar to a laptop having periodic updates to its operating systems. The upgrade will take several days. Data download will continue during that time, but the rover will not be doing anything new.