Curiosity makes maiden move on Mars

Updated: 2012-08-23 13:46


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LOS ANGELES - Mars rover Curiosity made its first move on the Red Planet on Wednesday, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said.

Curiosity's maiden drive combined forward, turn and reverse segments. This placed the rover roughly 20 feet (six meters) from the spot where it landed 16 days ago, according to JPL in Pasadena, California.

Rover driver Matt Heverly said the first drive took about 16 minutes with most of the time used to take pictures, adding that the wheels did not sink much into the ground, which is a good sign for the rover's mission.

"We should have smooth sailing ahead of us," he said.

The location where Curiosity touched down is now called Bradbury Landing, a name selected by Curiosity's science team and approved by NASA.

"This was not a difficult choice for the science team," said Michael Meyer, NASA's program scientist for Curiosity.

"Many of us and millions of other readers were inspired in our lives by stories Ray Bradbury wrote to dream of the possibility of life on Mars," Meyer added.

Bradbury, a US science fiction writer, inspired generations of readers to dream, think and create. His groundbreaking works include "Fahrenheit 451," "The Martian Chronicles," "The Illustrated Man," "Dandelion Wine," and "Something Wicked This Way Comes."

Curiosity's first drive confirmed the health of the rover's mobility system and produced the rover's first wheel tracks on Mars, documented in images taken after the drive.

At a news conference at JPL, Heverly showed an animation derived from visualization software used for planning the first drive.

"We have a fully functioning mobility system with lots of amazing exploration ahead," he said.

Curiosity will spend several more days in working beside Bradbury Landing, performing instrument checks and studying the surroundings before embarking on its long haul towards a destination approximately 1,300 feet (400 meters) to the east-southeast.

"Curiosity is a much more complex vehicle than earlier Mars rovers. The testing and characterization activities during the initial weeks of the mission lay important groundwork for operating our precious national resource with appropriate care," said Curiosity Project Manager Pete Theisinger of JPL.

The science team at JPL has ordered instruments on the rover's mast to investigate specific targets of interest near and far.

The Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument used a laser and spectrometers this week to examine the composition of rocks exposed when the spacecraft's landing engines blew away several inches of overlying material, according to JPL.

Roger Weins of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico said that measurements made on the rocks suggest a basaltic composition.

"These may be pieces of basalt within a sedimentary deposit," Weins said.

Curiosity's short drive came a day after the rover successfully wiggled its wheels to test its steering capabilities.

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater near the Martian equator on August 5 to explore whether the environment once supported microbial life.

The rover's ultimate destination is Mount Sharp, a towering mountain that looms from the ancient crater floor. Signs of past water have been spotted at the base, which provides a starting point for hunt for the chemical building blocks of life, according to JPL.

Before Curiosity treks towards the mountain, it will take a detour to an intriguing spot 1,300 feet away where it will drill into bedrock.

With the test drive accomplished, Curiosity was expected to stay at its new position for several days before making its first big drive, a trip that will take as long as a month and a half, according to JPL.

Curiosity won't head to Mount Sharp until the end of the year, JPL said.