NASA's Curiosity Sends Back Desolate View of Mars Landscape as It Makes Its Lonely Ascent of Mount Sharp

NASA's Curiosity has sent back images showing the lonely landscape of the Gale Crater as continues its ascent of Mount Sharp. The images, which were taken Sunday, show the view from the rover's left and right navigation cameras as it investigates the "Central Butte"—an area of geological interest to scientists.

Mars' Gale Crater formed about 3.7 billion years ago when a massive meteor hit the surface of the planet. The impact sent material flying out, creating a huge crater that would become a lake. As the rock dispersed by the impact rebounded, a central peak was left at the center of the crater—an 18,000 foot high mountain that is dubbed Mount Sharp by NASA.

The latest images show the view looking back at the edges of the Gale Crater from the side of Mount Sharp. Since NASA's Opportunity rover died earlier this year, Curiosity has been the only rover operating on the surface of Mars.

Curiosity was sent to the Gale Crater in 2012 to investigate the potential habitability of the planet. The mission was originally planned to last two years, but it has now been extended twice and is currently ascending Mount Sharp. In May, NASA released a proposed path up the mountain and, as part of its current path, is analyzing several buttes along the way.

A butte is an isolated hill with steep sides. On Earth, they tend to have flat tops and steep sides, and form through erosion and weathering. On Mars, these layered rock formations could hold key information about the planet's geological history. Mount Sharp—the mountain that sits at the center of the Gale Crater—has several buttes, and Curiosity is currently moving around the central one in a bid to characterize it and look for any geological variations in the area.

NASA is hoping to look at two buttes—the Central Butte and Rapness. Curiosity's ChemCam—an instrument that is able to "identify the chemical and mineral composition of rocks and soils"—is being used to test the bedrock.

In a blog post published November 1, Kristen Bennett, Planetary Geologist at USGS Astrogeology Science Center, said Curiosity was up the side of the Central Butte looking at the sedimentary structures. The Mastcam instrument is being used to take images of the butte to create several mosaics of it—the final one being one from the top of the butte that the rover cannot reach.

"After all of these observations, Curiosity will start driving around the butte to look at it from the other side. We expect to continue having amazing views of Central Butte at our next stop."