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Mars Curiosity baby steps: Rock zapped, now comes 'wheel wiggle'

August 20, 2012|By Amy Hubbard
  • A composite image, with magnified insets, shows the first laser test by Mars Curiosity's ChemCam.
A composite image, with magnified insets, shows the first laser test by… (NASA /JPL-Caltech / LANL…)

As the Mars Curiosity makes headlines for vaporizing its first Martian rock with a laser, the rover team is gearing up for the "wheel wiggle."

It's all part of the workday at California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the Curiosity team has been working on Mars time. A day on Mars is about 24 hours and 39 minutes long and is known as a sol.

"The hours are quite comfortable for this week," Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Mars Curiosity, told the Los Angeles Times on Monday morning. "We get the latest data from the rover in the midmorning, JPL time, and spend the rest of the day forming the next sol's plan."

PHOTOS: History of Mars exploration

As The Times reported earlier Monday, Curiosity's laser aimed more than 1 million watts of power in 5-billionths-of-a-second pulses at the rock dubbed Coronation.

According to NASA, the energy from the laser "excites atoms" in a rock into forming an ionized, glowing plasma. Curiosity's ChemCam then uses a telescope to catch the light from that plasma and analyze it for information about the rock's elements.

If the composition of the plasma seems to change over those 30 pulses, it would mean the laser was digging into successive layers of rock with each pulse.

Coming up Tuesday, a test is planned on the rover's steering actuator, a "wheel wiggle," as it's called around JPL.

"In order to squeeze inside the capsule that took Curiosity to Mars," Vasavada explained, "she had to turn in her toes."

Now the rover will be wiggling those toes. The team first plans to test the steering actuators on the four outer wheels. Later, they will test them on all six wheels, the scientist said.

Curiosity is busy going through the motions -- testing its parts after the multimillion-mile trip to Mars -- but scientists are gleaning all the data they can even as the rover goes through its system checks. 

For example, the laser exercise in which Curiosity's ChemCam vaporized the fist-size Coronation rock into plasma could bring useful insights.

Meanwhile, scientists and engineers have decided on Curiosity's first drive-to spot. The rover will travel about 1,300 feet east-southeast to a spot called Glenelg, where it should find layered bedrock and may use its drilling tool.

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