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Mars Curiosity rover soon to test its wheels and go for a spin

August 15, 2012|By Amina Khan
  • Mike Watkins discusses the deployment of the Curiosity rover's main mast on the surface of Mars during a news conference NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Mike Watkins discusses the deployment of the Curiosity rover's main… (Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles…)

The Curiosity rover is gearing up to take its first drive on Mars, probably at the beginning of next week, NASA scientists and engineers say.

Having survived its four-day "brain surgery" operation, the Mars Science Laboratory rover will go for a very short spin in the next few days, said mission manager Michael Watkins.

Since its dramatic touchdown on the Red Planet on Aug. 5, Curiosity has been doing an extended "stretch" of sorts -- unfolding its limbs, testing its cameras and sending reassuring notes back to Earth.

In the coming days, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge are to test the rover's steering actuators. Then Curiosity is to take its first few "steps" -- driving perhaps a few feet before turning around and surveying the spot where it landed.

"We start out crawling before we walk," Watkins said.

But the team is already itching to get the rover on the road toward its target, Mt. Sharp, a 3-mile-high mound that sits in the middle of Gale Crater.

"We're trying to just keep our eyes on the prize, finish these checkouts and then get going," said deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada. 

Every day, rover drivers will plot out the next day's course, looking for the best possible route over potentially treacherous terrain. The rover will have to navigate past slippery dunes and around boulders -- though its monster wheels can roll over obstacles up to 2 1/2 feet high. 

Want to know what it's like to drive the most advanced rover ever sent to another planet? Check out science writer Monte Morin’s story on the elite crew tasked with guiding Curiosity safely across Mars.

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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