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Mars rover Curiosity takes first test drive

August 22, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
NASA scientists took the Curiosity rover for its first test drive over the billion-year-old rocks of Mars.

Dramatic new images of Mars have been released by NASA as the Curiosity rover goes mobile for the first time. A 15-foot test drive was performed on the Martian surface.

Wednesday's test drive was s part of the overall health check-up the rover has been undergoing since its arrival at the beginning of the month.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists and engineers are celebrating Wednesday's maiden voyage, and hoping it sets the stage for an ambitious search for life on Mars. They do warn, however, that they are just 16 days into a two-year mission, and they don't want to get overconfident.

It may be black and white, but the view from the Curiosity rover still inspires awe, especially with the addition of tire tracks on the Martian surface, proof that the rover is actually roving.

Researchers discovered a damaged wind sensor while they were checking instruments that the Curiosity will use to check the Martian weather and soil. They believe the damage was caused by a pebble during landing. Regardless, it shouldn't jeopardize the rover's mission, which is to search for signs of whether life could exist on the red planet.

The first test of the rover's mobility has energized the heads of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. California Governor Jerry Brown is excited too.

Brown toured the control room at JPL where scientists monitor and guide the rover. It was also a chance for the governor to declare Wednesday "Space Day" in California, something he also did some 40 years ago to honor the space shuttle program.

"That's where I got this moniker called 'Governor Moonbeam,'" said Brown Wednesday. "There's a lot of other ingredients into my 'Moonbeam-ship.'"

Wednesday's test drive was definitely not a lengthy road trip. The rover rolled forward about 9 feet, then turned around and rolled back to its original landing spot.

"It is fantastic how well everything is working. We have high hopes that this is going to really prove out this region and tell us whether or not it was ever potentially habitable," said Dr. Michael Meyer, NASA's lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program.

After an Earth-to-Mars trip that spanned 154 million miles and 36 weeks in space, and a nail-bitingly complex landing that involved a parachute, a bungee cord and retro rockets, NASA scientists will tell you every successful test is exciting, but they also warn about getting too excited, too early.

"So as good as it's gone and as wonderful as it is, you know we've still only checked off about two of the level-1 requirements boxes: launched on time; land on Mars. And we've got a long way to go before this mission reaches its full potential," said Pete Theisinger, NASA manager of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission Project.

NASA named the spot where Curiosity landed "Bradbury Landing," after science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who would have turned 92 Wednesday.

Curiosity is set to send back daily weather updates from Mars throughout the week. You can keep track of those updates on the JPL website. So far, the rover has sampled air-temperature swings from 28 to -103 degrees Fahrenheit.

See images sent to Earth by Curiosity after touching down on Mars.


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