(Sen) - NASA's latest Mars rover Curiosity has successfully completed the "brain transplant" that will prepare it for its exploration of Gale Crater over the next two years.
As the upload of new software from Earth ended, NASA released the first colour photo taken from orbit that showed the robotic rover on the martian surface.
A black and white photo had earlier shown Curiosity, its parachute, backshell, heat shield and Sky Crane spread across the landscape.
The new colour shot shows the rover sitting as a bright blob surrounded by layered bedrock. Strikingly apparent is how the Sky Crane's eight thrusters left the martian surface looking heavily blasted.
It was taken by the most powerful camera in orbit around Mars, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which has been circling the Red Planet since 2006.
HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen, of the University of Arizona, said: "The rover appears as double bright spot plus shadows from this perspective, looking at its shadowed side, set in the middle of the blast pattern from the descent stage.
"This image was acquired from an angle looking 30 degrees westward of straight down. We plan to get one in a few days looking more directly down, showing the rover in more detail and completing a stereo pair."
While Mars fans may be impatient for Curiosity to get busy exploring the crater in which it has landed to look for conditions suitable for life, NASA has been careful to take time to prepare for a mission that will last at least two years.
For four days over the weekend, new software had to be fed into the rover's main computer, replacing that which it needed to fly to Mars and land for new processes that will help it drive and use its many exploratory tools.
Curiosity Mission Manager Mike Watkins of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California, said: "We have successfully completed the brain transplant. Now we are moving on to a new phase of functional checkouts of the science instruments and preparations for a short test drive."
Curiosity viewed on Mars by the HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
Indications are that Curiosity will make its first tentative drive in another week or so, testing its capabilities by practising moving forwards and backwards and making a turn. Each of its six wheels is separately controlled and these will all need to be tested.
When the semi-autonomous, Mini Cooper-sized rover begins its mission in earnest, it will follow daily schedules sent to it from mission control at Pasadena.
Engineer Jaret Matthews told Sen: "We make a plan for the day and set a goal for the rover. We tell it, next time we hear from you we would like you to be at a certain location. Then it plans its own path, avoiding obstacles on the way to keep itself safe. If it gets confused, it will simply stop and wait for more instructions."
Since Curiosity landed on August 6, scientists have been studying the early images sent back to find potentially interesting places nearby to drive to and investigate as it heads towards Gale Crater's central peak Aeolis Mons, a mountain that NASA has controversially dubbed Mount Sharp.
Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity, said: "It's fair to say that the scientists, not to mention the rover drivers, are itching to move.
"The science and operations teams are evaluating several potential routes that would take us to Mount Sharp, with perhaps a few waypoints to inspect some of the different terrains we've identified as we map the landing area.
"It's going to take us a good part of our first year to make it to the layered sediments on Mount Sharp."