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Mars Curiosity rover moves, finds broken sensor

August 21, 2012|By Amina Khan | Los Angeles Times
  • This image released by NASA shows a mosaic with a close-up inset of the rock chosen as the first target for Curiosity to examine with its Chemistry-Camera (ChemCam) instrument.
This image released by NASA shows a mosaic with a close-up inset of the rock… (NASA/JPL-Caltech / AFP/Getty…)

Curiosity has stretched its neck, flexed its arm and wiggled its toes – and it’s set to make its first drive on Mars after engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory send it instructions tonight. But in its self-examination, the Mars Science Laboratory has found more than a small bruise on its one-ton body.

Curiosity has been testing its cameras, laser and other functions since landing on the Red Planet on Aug. 5. NASA officials announced Monday that the rover had successfully unfolded its arm. The robotic arm holds what mission manager Michael Watkins called a veritable “Swiss army knife” of tools in its figurative fist, including a drill for boring into rocks and a microscopic camera for imaging their structure in extreme detail.

The Martian rover is also set to make its first drive. Engineers at JPL have now tested out the six-wheeled rover’s four steering wheels on each corner of its body.  With the wheels rotating as expected, the NASA team members say they will be sending commands tonight that will have the rover move 3 meters forward – about the rover’s length – and then turn 90 degrees and back up. Curiosity will then get its first look at its own landing spot. That exercise should take about 30 minutes, officials said.

In the coming days, the rover will venture 1,300 feet from its landing site to check out another interesting spot called Glenelg, a potentially drill-worthy zone where three types of terrain meet.

While testing out the wind-sensing instrument known as the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, the engineers found that one sensor set was out of commission, sending back garbled data. Though they’re not sure what happened, said deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, they think some bits of rocky debris kicked up during landing may have flown into some of the instrument’s sensitive, exposed circuit boards – those that were facing outside during landing.

“These are pretty fragile devices. … That’s kind of the price we pay for flying the next generation of wind sensor,” Vasavada said. “We could have flown something simpler, as previous missions did, but instead we fly a very accurate sensor which requires exposing our [circuits] to the wind.”

But only one set of the sensors is totally out of operation, and scientists expect to start posting daily Martian weather reports next week. And on the whole, Curiosity is making great progress, Watkins said.

“The Curiosity rover and the ops team continue to hit home runs here,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a really fantastic week.”

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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