Mars orbiter snaps photo of Curiosity rover, possible drilling target

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover and tracks from its driving are visible in this view from orbit, acquired on April 11, 2014, by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance orbiter has sent back a photo of the Curiosity rover on the surface of the Red Planet which could help scientists plan where to probe next.

It shows Curiosity stopped near a small butte -- a hill with steep sides and a flat top -- and clues from the photo are giving scientists another possible target to investigate with the rover's robotic arm.

If deemed interesting by scientists through a close-up look and a chemical analysis of the rock, the base of the butte may be the third rock that Curiosity samples with its drill.

The mission's first two drilled samples in an area near the rover's landing site -- known as Yellowknife Bay -- provided evidence of an ancient lakebed environment, which would have been favorable to microbes.

The butte, called Mount Remarkable by scientists, stands about 16 feet high. Its base is known as the "middle unit" because it lies between the rocks that form high-standing buttes in the area and lower-lying rocks that show a pattern of striations.

At the Mars rover's current location, known as the Kimberley, multiple types of rocks lie close together, newly-exposed and ready to provide information about the types of organic elements available on the Red Planet. It is here, and near Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, that researchers plan to use Curiosity's laboratory instruments to learn about habitable past conditions and environmental changes, according to NASA.

In the nearly two years since the rover landed on Mars, Curiosity has demonstrated its near-flawless ability to act as a robotic geologist -- becoming one of NASA's most successful planetary explorers.

Since landing on the floor of Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, Curiosity has been busy -- sending back more than 190 gigabits of data, taking more than 70,000 photographs and firing more than 75,000 laser shots at targeted rocks and soil in its first year alone. It has also measured the radiation in environment, providing unprecedented detail, and served as a weather station.

The photos that have been taken by Curiosity have stirred people's imagination. An awe-inspiring photo of our home planet as seen from Mars was released in February, taken about 80 minutes after sunset during the rover's 529th Martian day -- or Jan. 31, 2014 for us living on Earth.

What appeared to be a mysterious light in another photo, pointed out by an UFO blogger, sparked unfounded beliefs that there was life on Mars. It was most likely caused by either cosmic rays interfering with the camera or a simple glinty rock, experts explained.

The Curiosity rover, originally slated to last two years, could continue to operate years longer, barring any major problems, NASA says.