Mars rover passes driving test, looks to hit road

By ALICIA CHANG,AP Science Writer Updated at 2012-08-23 18:03:21 +0000

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    317cb870bd870b17190f6a7067000865 This image dated Wednesday Aug. 22, 2012 and provided by NASA shows the Curiosity rover's wheel tracks on the surface of Mars an image sent from one of the rover's cameras. The image was posted on a Tweet by JPL mission engineer Allen Chen.(AP Photo/NASA)

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    675216main_pia16028-43_946-710 On the left of this image, part of the rover's power supply is visible. To the right of the power supply can be seen the pointy low-gain antenna and side of the paddle-shaped high-gain antenna for communications directly to Earth. Photo NASA.

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Now that Curiosity passed its driving test on Mars, the six-wheel NASA rover set its sights on longer treks.

The first test drive around the pebbly Martian crater where it landed was just that — a test drive. The rover edged forward about 15 feet, rotated to a right angle and reversed a short distance, leaving tracks in the rust-tinged soil.

Mission managers were elated that Wednesday's maiden trek of the $2.5 billion mission was glitch-free. In several days, Curiosity was poised to drive farther to study whether the red planet's environment could have supported life.

"It couldn't be more important," said project manager Peter Theisinger at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We built a rover. So unless the rover roves, we really haven't accomplished anything ... It's a big moment."

The short spin came a day after Curiosity successfully wiggled its wheels to test its steering capabilities.

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater near the Martian equator Aug. 5 to explore whether the environment once supported microbial life. The touchdown site has been named Bradbury Landing in honor of the late "The Martian Chronicles" author Ray Bradbury, who would have turned 92 on Wednesday.

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, providing a starting point to hunt for the chemical building blocks of life.

Before Curiosity journeys toward 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 out of the way, 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.

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

Rover driver Matt Heverly said the first drive took about 16 minutes with most of the time used to take pictures. Heverly said the wheels did not sink much into the ground, which appeared firm.

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

After an action-packed landing that delicately lowered it to the surface with nylon cables, Curiosity has entered a slow streak. Since the car-size rover is the most sophisticated spacecraft sent to Mars, engineers have taken their time to make sure it's in tiptop shape and that its high-tech tools work before it delves into its mission.

Curiosity joins the rover Opportunity, which has been exploring craters in Mars' southern hemisphere since 2004. Opportunity's twin, Spirit, fell silent in 2010 after getting stuck in a sand trap.

Earlier this week, Curiosity exercised its robotic arm for the first time, flexing its joints and motors before engineers stowed it again. Weeks of additional tests were planned before it can drill and scoop up Martian soil.

The nuclear-powered rover has been tracking levels of dangerous radiation on the Martian surface in an effort to guide future astronaut landings. It also powered up its weather station, taking hourly readings of air and ground temperatures, pressure and wind conditions.

Over the weekend, it fired its laser at a humble rock to study what it's made of. Unsurprisingly, the zapped rock was typical of other Martian rocks, made of basalt.

During the checkups, scientists discovered a damaged wind sensor, possibly after it was hit by rocks that landed on the rover's instrument deck during landing. Deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada said the broken sensor will not jeopardize the mission since there's a spare.

Since nailing the daredevil landing, the rover team has been acknowledged by President Barack Obama. Gov. Jerry Brown, who declared Wednesday as "Space Day" visited the lab and donned 3-D glasses to view an animation of Curiosity's first drive on a big screen in the control room.
Aug. 21. 2012

Mars rover Curiosity prepares for short test drive
NASA - A few days after zapping its first rock with a laser, NASA's Curiosity rover is preparing for its first test drive on the Martian surface Wednesday morning.
Commands will be loaded overnight for the six-wheeled, car-sized rover to roll forward one car length, rotate 120-degrees to the right and then back up nearly the same distance.
"You will definitely see tracks, and you will definitely see it move," said Michael Watkins, Curiosity mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Curiosity's laser — the Chemistry and Camera instrument dubbed ChemCam — successfully zapped a flat, fist-sized rock in its first target practice on Sunday, and shot more targets Monday.
When the laser blasts the rocks, it creates little balls of flaming plasma, or sparks. Instrument spectrometers then record the colors created, a technique that enables scientists to determine elemental composition of the rock.
"One thing we know for sure is that the ChemCam instrument is working better than we hoped," said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity deputy project scientist at the JPL.
The checkouts of rover systems and science instruments are mostly proceeding well, including tests of a tool-laden robotic arm that is critical to future attempts to analyze material samples.
One set of wind sensors, however, is believed to have been knocked out of commission during Curiosity's Aug. 6 landing.
It's not known for sure how the exposed, fragile circuit boards on a small boom extending from Curiosity's mast were damaged. One possibility is they were hit by small rocks that fell on the rover as it settled on the surface.
"(Engineers) believe this is permanent damage, so that's a little disappointing," Vasavada said.
Another set of wind sensors mounted on a second boom is operating properly. Its readings will only be limited when the wind is blowing from directly behind it.
"We could have flown the single operating boom, and we would do very well," Vasavada said. "We still retain nearly the full capability, just with a little bit of ambiguity in terms of wind direction."
Curiosity's short test drive will take about a half-hour. If it goes well, the rover will gradually build up to distances of as much as 330 feet in a day to perform science investigations.
"The Curiosity rover and the (operations) team continue to hit home runs here," said Watkins. "We're in the middle of a really fantastic week."