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Thursday, August 23, 2012 - Page updated at 07:00 p.m.
Curiosity rover takes first short spin around Mars
By KENNETH CHANG
The New York Times
It was a modest test drive: moving forward 15 feet, turning in place 120 degrees, then backing up about 8 feet. The entire trip took about 16 minutes, with most of the time spent stopped as cameras took photographs of the progress.
But for the team behind Curiosity, the six-wheeled NASA rover that landed on Mars 17 days ago, the first tracks in the dust Wednesday were an exciting milestone.
"It couldn't be more important," Peter Theisinger, the mission's project manager, said at a post-drive news conference. "I mean, we built a rover. So unless the rover roves, we really haven't accomplished anything."
Curiosity is to spend at least a couple of years roving through a 96-mile-wide crater and up a 3.4-mile-high mountain at the center of the crater, exploring for signs that early Mars could have been habitable for microbial life.
But that journey of miles started with a roll of a few feet away from Bradbury Landing, where Curiosity set down Aug. 6. NASA said Wednesday that the spot had been named for Ray Bradbury, the author of "The Martian Chronicles" and other influential science-fiction novels, who died in June. He would have turned 92 Wednesday.
Recently, Curiosity has been busy with other exercises, like vaporizing Martian rocks and seeing what they are made of (basalt, apparently, or something similar). On Sunday, the rover fired a laser instrument for the first time, hitting a rock with 30 bursts in 10 seconds and analyzing the atomic makeup from the resulting flashes of light.
On Monday, it flexed its arm. On Tuesday, it wiggled its four corner wheels in preparation for the drive.
"Everything has been going extremely well," Theisinger said. "Really extremely well."
Having succeeded at rock-zapping Sunday, scientists turned the laser, which was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to vaporize small bits at six more locations. So far, most of the rocks appear to be a type, common on Mars, that forms from the rapid cooling of lava.
Another instrument, provided by Russia, has started firing neutrons into the soil to look for hydrogen, which would point to the presence of water. The rover also has gradually started science observations.
So far, the only broken piece has been a wind sensor that may have been knocked out by rocks kicked up during the landing, NASA said. A second wind sensor is working properly, as is the rest of the rover's weather station, which was contributed by Spain.
The station has measured swings in air temperature from minus-103 degrees to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Swings in ground temperatures have been even greater, from minus-132 degrees to 37 degrees.
During the next week, as more instruments are checked out, Curiosity may conduct its first analysis of the makeup of the Martian atmosphere. When that is complete, it is to head to its first destination, called Glenelg, where three types of terrain appear to intersect.
At first, Curiosity will move only about 30 feet at a time. As its engineers gain experience, the drives will stretch to longer than the length of a football field, relying on the rover's ability to navigate for itself.
Theisinger, the project manager, cautioned that the early successes did not ensure future ones; so far, the mission has checked off only two of its primary goals, to launch on time and to land on Mars.
"We've got a long way to go before this mission meets its full potential," he said. "But the fact we haven't had any early problem is, in fact, fantastic."
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