|August 22, 2012||Curiosity Mars rover takes first drive||2 comments|
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The US space agency's (NASA) Curiosity rover has finally begun to roll.
The Mars robot, which landed on the Red Planet two weeks ago, turned its six wheels briefly on Wednesday to satisfy engineers that its locomotion system was in full working order.
Curiosity is a sophisticated mobile science laboratory.
It has been built to drive at least 20 km across the Martian landscape to investigate whether the planet ever had the conditions necessary for life.
Wednesday's drive saw the rover roll forward 4.5 meters, turn clockwise on the spot for about 120 degrees, and then reverse up 2.5 meters.
It took about five minutes to complete the maneuver. Another half-hour was spent photographing the outcome, showing the vehicle's historic first tracks in the Martian soil.
The significance of the test drive was not lost on NASA's Curiosity project manager, Pete Theisinger.
"It couldn't be more important," he told reporters. "We built a rover and unless the rover roves, we really haven't accomplished anything.
"And the fact that we completely exercised it and everything was on track is a big moment."
NASA has made one other key announcement on what has been the 16th day of this mission. It has named the spot on which the robot landed after the science fiction author, Ray Bradbury.
The celebrated American writer, who died in June, was an enthusiastic supporter of the space agency.
"His books have truly inspired us," said Michael Meyer, NASA's program scientist for Curiosity. "The Martian Chronicles have inspired our curiosity and opened our minds to the possibility of life on Mars.
"In his honor, we declare the place that Curiosity touched down to be forever known as Bradbury Landing."
The rover is now pointing south in the general direction of Mount Sharp, the big mountain at the center of Mars' equatorial Gale Crater.
Scientists expect to find rocks at the base of the peak that were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of abundant water.
Curiosity - also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL - will not journey to Mount Sharp immediately, however. The mission team first wants to visit a piece of ground some 400 meters to the east; a location researchers have dubbed Glenelg.
Satellite pictures have shown this place to be an intersection of three distinct types of rock terrain. Scientists think Glenelg will be a good place to start to characterize the geology of Gale Crater.
On its way to the intersection, Curiosity will "sniff" the atmosphere and analyze the composition of its gases. It will likely also scoop a soil sample to examine in its onboard laboratories.
Referring to the labeled graphic at bottom: