Eroded mesas and buttes, capped with rock that is resistant to wind erosion: it sounds like scenery straight out of the U.S. Southwest, and you'd likely be inclined to believe so if you weren't made aware of the fact that it was actually the description for the latest images of Mars sent back from NASA's Curiosity Rover.
To come up with the panorama, the rover made use of its Mast Camera. Through the Mastcam imaging system, Curiosity was able to capture a number of component images on Aug. 5, 2016, exactly four years after its historic landing inside Mars' Gale Crater.
The 360-degree images of Mars can be seen on NASA's website or through an interactive video, and they allow users to explore a part of Mars called the Murray Buttes on lower Mount Sharp, Curiosity's primary mission site. The Murray Buttes, a series of mounds about 50 feet high and about 200 feet wide near the top, are named in honor of Bruce Murray, a former director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Murray, who passed away in 2013, was also a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology.
The images themselves show parts of the Murray Buttes, the Gale Crater rim and upper Mount Sharp, as well as terrain features such as baked mudstone and buttes. The mesas and buttes are capped with wind erosion-resistant rock, which, according to NASA, "helps preserve these monumental remnants of a layer that formerly more fully covered the underlying layer that the rover is now driving on."
As you might know, these images aren't the primary reason why the Curiosity is on Mars. The rover is on the red planet in order to assess whether it ever had a habitable environment — something that was already confirmed to be true. Now, the rover is on an extended mission where it examines younger layers of terrain as it makes its way to the lower area of Mount Sharp. This time around, the objective is to learn how freshwater lake conditions have evolved into states that are now less-suited to supporting life because of aridity, as well as monitor the planet's modern environment.
All these efforts are aimed at the eventual manned mission to Mars, which NASA hopes to achieve by the 2030s.
In addition, while NASA works toward that goal, we can have the next-best thing thanks to an interactive video. Simply use a mouse or mobile screen to take in a view that would have you forgetting that you are looking at the surface of another planet.