NASA's next-generation Mars rover took its first baby steps on Earth Friday a few short drives that herald its upcoming mission to the red planet.
"This is great, this is really exciting," said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory rover's mission. "This is a huge milestone. It's a rover."
The ambitious new rover, named Curiosity, took center stage in the clean room of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, showcasing a whole slew of new instruments and support features. It drove just about 3 feet (1 meter) back and forth in its first drives.
NASA broadcast the rover's first drives live in an Internet webcast.
This week alone, spacecraft technicians and engineers attached the Curiosity rover's neck and head (called the Remote Sensing Mast) to its body, and mounted two navigation cameras (Navcams), two mast cameras (Mastcam) and the laser-toting chemistry camera (ChemCam).
Curiosity was also sporting a new set of six aluminum wheels, each about 20 inches (about half a meter) in diameter, as it took its first drive on Earth. The large rover now stands at about 7 feet (2 meters) tall.
The rover will also be outfitted with a 6-foot (1.8-meter) robotic arm that carries a large jackhammer drill and microscope. The rover will be able to drill approximately 2 inches (5 cm) into rocks, and sample the composition of the powder.
The rover is scheduled to launch in 2011 and touch down on Mars soil in August 2012. MSL's primary mission is to study the habitability of a landing site on Mars, and to conduct tests on Martian rocks in order to sample the planet's geological history.
"We've been following the water for a decade of so, and now we know there is water on Mars," he said. "What MSL will do is take a next-generation set of instruments, and in detail, determine the habitability."
And, everything appears to be progressing nicely.
"It's always wonderful to see a baby take its first steps," said Kevin Talley, who was a driver for the twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. "And that's a big baby."
The Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars in January 2004 for what scientists initially planned to be a 90-day mission, but both have far outlasted their life expectancies.. Now, more than six years later, Opportunity is still going strong as it rolls toward a huge crater called Endeavour.
Spirit, meanwhile, has transitioned into a stationary explorer on Mars, after getting inescapably stuck in deep Martian sand last year. It is currently in a hibernation state due to low sunlight levels for its solar arrays, mission managers have said.