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Mars Rover Curiosity Takes 1st Martian Test Drive, Sees Tracks (Photos)

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took its first halting steps on the Red Planet today (Aug. 22), snapping photos of its tracks to commemorate the test drive milestone.
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NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took its first halting steps on the Red Planet today (Aug. 22), snapping photos of its tracks to commemorate the test drive milestone.

The 1-ton Curiosity rover was slated to move about 10 feet (3 meters) forward, turn to the right 90 degrees and then back up several meters, mission managers said yesterday. And based on pictures that came down from the six-wheeled robot today, that brief maneuver — or something like it — appears to have happened.

The black-and-white photos, taken by Curiosity's navigation cameras, clearly show its tracks on the Martian surface.

A spokesman at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which manages Curiosity's mission, declined to discuss the drive, explaining that the rover team would elaborate during a press conference today at 2:30 p.m. EDT (1830 GMT). [ More photos of Curiosity's 1st drive on Mars ]

Curiosity touched down inside Mars' huge Gale Crater on the night of Aug. 5. Its two-year mission, officially known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), aims to determine if the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life.

Since Curiosity hit the red dirt, the MSL team has been systematically vetting the $2.5 billion rover and its 10 science instruments, making sure everything is in good working condition for surface operations. Today's short drive — and a Monday (Aug. 20) test of Curiosity's steering abilities — are part of this checkout process.

Everything has gone well so far, team members have said, though Curiosity's weather station is not working perfectly. Wind sensors on one of the instrument's two booms have been damaged, perhaps by rocks deposited on Curiosity's deck during or shortly after landing.

But the other boom's sensors are working fine, so the impact should be limited to some slight ambiguity regarding wind direction, researchers have said.

If everything continues to check out, Curiosity could head toward its first major science target — a spot 1,300 feet (400 m) away called Glenelg — as early as this weekend, mission managers have said. Three different types of terrain come together at Glenelg, making it a one-stop shop for lots of science investigations.

But Curiosity's ultimate destination is the base of Mount Sharp, the 3.4-mile-high (5.5-kilometer) mountain rising from the center of Gale Crater. Mars-orbiting spacecraft have spotted evidence of clays and sulfates in Mount Sharp's foothills, suggesting the area was exposed to liquid water long ago.

While Curiosity is getting ready to roll, it won't exactly speed through its Martian environs. The rover will likely spend a month or more journeying to Glenelg, researchers have said, and then remain there for a while, studying the site's rocks and soil.

Curiosity may be ready to turn its wheels toward the interesting deposits in Mount Sharp's foothills, which are about 5 miles (8 km) away as the crow flies, toward the end of the year, scientists have said.

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