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Mars rover snaps spooky portraits

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / JMKnapp

A mosaic of images from the Curiosity rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager shows the rover's camera mast and deck. The pictures were taken on Oct. 31 during operations at a Martian sampling site known as Rocknest.

It looks as if someone is taking portraits of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars from a few feet away — but wait a minute: Who's the photographer?

The answer is that Curiosity itself is responsible for the pictures, with strong assists from image-processing gurus. These views show the six-wheeled, nuclear-powered mobile laboratory at a geological site of interest known as Glenelg, as of Sol 84 (Oct. 31). They were assembled from imagery captured by the Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, looking backward from the end of the rover's 7-foot-long (2.1-meter-long) robotic arm.

MAHLI's main function is to get microscope-quality views of Martian details, such as the shape of sand grains on the surface — but it can also snap some killer self-portraits, just as smartphone users do with their forward-facing cameras. That's how Curiosity captured a Facebook-style profile picture of its own camera mast back in September, a month after landing in Mars' Gale Crater. Since then, the MAHLI team at San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has really hit its stride.

So have the amateur image processors at UnmannedSpaceflight.com. The website serves as a forum for the fans of interplanetary robotic missions, and particularly for those who love to riff off NASA's raw imagery. Often, the amateurs are quicker on the draw than the professionals, who have to hew a little more closely to the standard procedures for releasing imagery.

The view above, focusing on Curiosity's mast, was put together by Ohio engineer Joe Knapp. The fish-eye view below, with Mount Sharp looming in the background at far right, was done by Stuart Atkinson, a British educator-astronomer who also shares Martian views via The Gale Gazette. Because of the way the mosaic was made, the very end of the robotic arm has made a spooky disappearance.

"I did it in a bit of a rush," Atkinson wrote, "but it doesn't really matter, does it? Just a pretty pic, not an official NASA product. :-)"

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / Stuart Atkinson

This full-color self-portrait of Curiosity was stitched together from MAHLI imagery, with a fisheye-lens perspective. A 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) peak known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp can be seen in the background at right.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

On Sol 84 (Oct. 31, 2012), NASA's Curiosity rover used the MAHLI camera to capture this set of 55 high-resolution images, which were stitched together to create this full-color self-portrait. The mosaic shows the rover at "Rocknest," the spot in Gale Crater where the mission's first scoop sampling took place. Four scoop scars can be seen in the regolith in front of the rover. The base of Gale Crater's 3-mile-high (5-kilometer) mountain, Mount Sharp, rises on the right side of the frame. Mountains in the background to the left are the northern wall of Gale Crater. The Martian landscape appears inverted within the round, reflective ChemCam instrument at the top of the rover's mast. Self-portraits like this one document the state of the rover and allow mission engineers to track changes over time, such as dust accumulation and wheel wear. Due to its location on the end of the robotic arm, only MAHLI is able to image some parts of the craft, including the port-side wheels.

NASA's high-resolution view of Curiosity, released today and shown above, was assembled from 55 MAHLI images. This hi-res view follows up on a lower-resolution view that was issued earlier in the day. On the UnmannedSpaceflight.com forum, Malin Space Science Systems' Michael Caplinger asked for a little patience on the part of his amateur colleagues. "We've been working on this particular project since before landing," Caplinger wrote, "and I feel like we are having to rush it to avoid being scooped."

As someone who's been working on Internet time for 16 years, I know exactly how he feels.

Update for 9:20 p.m. ET: Scientists are due to discuss Curiosity's studies of the Martian atmosphere during a media teleconference at 1 p.m. ET Friday, and it seems likely that methane will be on the agenda. Previous missions have detected methane in the Red Planet's atmosphere, which could hint at microbial activity, volcanic activity or some other intriguing chemical process. For weeks, there's been a buzz in the air about the readings recorded by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars lab, or SAM. What will come to light on Friday? Check out this backgrounder by Nature's Eric Hand, then tune in JPL's Ustream channel to find out.

Update for 3:35 a.m. ET Nov. 2: I've updated this item with the magnificent high-resolution view from NASA.

More about Curiosity:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.