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Mars rover ramps up for its first test drive (+video)

NASA's Curiosity rover has aced its first tests on Mars – twist wheel to the left, twist wheel to the right, extend robotic arm, pull it back – now it's heading out for a (nearly) 10-foot test drive.

By Staff writer / August 21, 2012

This full-resolution image from NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars shows the turret of tools at the end of the rover's extended robotic arm, in this image taken Wednesday and released by NASA on Tuesday.The Navigation Camera captured this view.

JPL-Caltech/NASA/Reuters

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NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has zapped a rock, is playing Hokey Pokey at the pace of a drawn-out cricket match, and continues to pass virtually all of its checkouts with flying colors – and tomorrow takes its first test drive.

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NASA scientists successfully tested out Mars rover Curiosity's robotic arm. The arm could potentially drill into the Martian soil and collect samples.

That's the word from scientists and mission managers in summing up the rover's last few days on Mars.

The one exception to the string of good news is the loss of one of two wind sensors that form part of the rover's weather station. While not a showstopper, it could compromise the quality of some wind speed and direction measurements the station gathers, the team notes.

Despite the hitch, Curiosity and the operations team "continue to hit home runs here," said Michael Watkins, manager for the Mars Science Laboratory mission, of which Curiosity is the robotic star.

The rover is on a quest to help scientists determine if its landing site – Gale Crater and the foothills of its central summit, Mt. Sharp – might have once contained environments where life might have thrived.

Over the past few days, the rover has given its steerable corner wheels a twist to the left and a twist to the right to ensure that they function. It has extended its 7-foot-long arm out and back in, twisting its joints to make sure they all flex – especially at the business end, where a small turret full of rock-sampling tools sits. And tomorrow it takes its first test drive – all of about 10 feet – where it will pivot in place and drive backward part of the way. From an engineering standpoint, that's what it's all about.

Images of the robotic arm's test taken by the rover's navigation camera atop its 7-foot-high mast are driving home that the rover isn't operating on a Jet Propulsion Laboratory test bed, Mr. Watkins says.

"We have looked at images like this so many thousands of times in our test environment," he says. Now, Mars is in the background of the images, rather than test-bed walls.

"It's really a great feeling," he said during a briefing Tuesday.

The rock-zapping ChemCam, also at Curiosity's masthead, conducted its first test on Sunday, revealing a 3-inch-wide target rock to be volcanic basalts, as the research team had anticipated. On Monday, they turned ChemCam's laser on a patch of Martian turf the team has named Goulburn.

It's one of four locations around Curiosity where the rocket motors from the rover's descent stage altered the surface. Goulburn is of special interest because the blast from the descent stage wiped the surface clean, exposing bedrock – a tempting target for the mission's geologists.

Indeed, yesterday they followed up Sunday's highly successful ChemCam test with its first science assignment – using its laser, mini-telescope, and spectrometers to analyze the chemical composition of the exposed bedrock. The results are pending.

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