Aug. 22, 2012 at 1:10 PM ET
NASA's Curiosity rover made its first drive on Mars today, more than two weeks after its high-stakes landing on the Red Planet. To celebrate the day, as well as what would have been the late science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury's 92nd birthday, NASA said the rover's landing site would be forever known as Bradbury Landing.
The raw images, displayed on the Mars Science Laboratory mission's Web portal, showed the tracks of the rover's wheels curling around and backing up, in accordance with the driving plan that was sent up overnight.
Today's drive amounted to only about 23 feet (7 meters) of maneuvers, but it represented the first step in a $2.5 billion, two-year trek that's expected to go at least 12 miles (20 kilometers) and take in a commanding view from the flanks of a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain within 96-mile-wide (154-kilometer-wide) Gale Crater.
The mission's project manager, Peter Theisinger, said the drive "couldn't be more important."
"We built a rover," he told reporters during today's briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "So unless the rover roves, we couldn't really accomplish anything. It's a big moment."
The drive also marked a transition for the Curiosity team — from the entry, descent and landing phase of the mission, known as EDL, to surface operations and rover mobility. "Wheel tracks on Mars. The EDL team is finally done. :) Congrats to the mobility and surface teams!" Allen Chen, the mission's EDL operations and flight dynamics lead, declared in a Twitter update.
Lead rover driver Matt Heverly said that today's drive started at 7:17 a.m. PT (10:17 a.m. ET) and lasted roughly 16 minutes. "The majority of that time was spent taking images," he said. The rover rolled out 15 feet (4.5 meters), made a 120-degree turn in place, and then backed up 8 feet (2.5 meters) to a new spot for scientific observations.
First trek will follow checkouts
Since the rover's landing on the night of Aug. 5, Curiosity has been going through a series of checkouts and taking pictures of its immediate surroundings. Nearly all of the systems are working as planned — with the sole exception of wind sensors on one of the booms connected to the rover's weather station. Scientists speculate that the circuit boards for those sensors were probably damaged by small rocks that were thrown up onto the rover during landing. Despite the damage, the weather station will be able to gather wind speed data using other sensors.
Curiosity's first destination will be a spot known as Glenelg, about a quarter-mile (400 meters) from the landing site, where three types of geological formations come together. That months-long trek could begin in about a week, deputy project scientist Joy Crisp said today. The rover's first scoop sample could be taken on the route between Bradbury Landing and Glenelg, she said, but the first drilling sample would probably be extracted at Glenelg.
By the end of the year, the nuclear-powered rover is expected to retrace its route and head toward the mountain, known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp. The layers of rock along the mountainside are thought to preserve a geological record going back billions of years.
The primary goal of Curiosity's mission is to look for geological and chemical evidence that could reveal how habitable Mars might have been over eons of geological time. To take on that challenge, the 1-ton, car-sized rover has been equipped with a bevy of scientific instruments — including high-resolution color cameras, two onboard chemical labs, an X-ray spectrometer and a rock-zapping laser.
Theisinger said Curiosity was making "excellent progress" at Bradbury Landing, 16 days into a mission that could last far longer than its scheduled duration of nearly two Earth years. "We've got a long way to go before this mission reaches its full potential," he said. "But the fact that we haven't had any early problems is fantastic."
Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, announced the naming of the landing site at the start of today's news briefing. He began by airing a clip of Bradbury discussing Mars with Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan and other luminaries, just before NASA's Mariner 9 probe entered the Red Planet's orbit in 1971. During that session, Bradbury read a short poem titled "If Only We Had Taller Been."
Bradbury, best known for science-fiction tales such as "The Martian Chronicles" and "Fahrenheit 451," passed away in June at the age of 91. "Today would have been Ray Bradbury's 92nd birthday, but he's already reached immortality in his short stories and books," Meyer observed. In his honor, Meyer said the landing site would "forever be known as Bradbury Landing."
In a statement issued by NASA, Meyer said deciding on the name "was not a difficult choice for the science team."
"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," he said.
Today's christening adds to NASA's list of Martian landing sites named after VIPs, including:
More about Mars:
This report was last updated at 5 p.m. ET.
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 dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.