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Curiosity rover set for first test drive
by Staff Writers
Pasadena, Calif. (UPI) Aug 22, 2012

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only

NASA gave the Mars Curiosity rover driving commands ahead of its first test-drive across the Martian surface Wednesday, the space agency's field center said.

The 1-ton robotic, car-size rover acknowledged receipt of the instructions for a slow, 30-minute drive that will take the six-wheel nuclear-powered vehicle about 10 feet ahead of where it landed in Gale Crater Aug. 6, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

The rover is then to stop, turn its wheels to the right and then back up in a 90-degree turn, the lab said.

The idea is to move to an area with no known hazards that has already been photographed, Mission Manager Mike Watkins told reporters in a conference call Tuesday.

"We want to park in a place we've exactly examined. We just want to be extra safe," he said.

The rover tested the turning of its wheels Tuesday, with Watkins saying the "wheel wiggle" -- one of which NASA showed in an animated image on its Web site -- was a success.

Curiosity's first longer-distance drive, most likely next month, is to be a quarter-mile trek east-southeast to a spot called Glenelg, which is a natural intersection of three kinds of terrain.

One kind of terrain is layered bedrock, which is attractive as the first drilling target, NASA said.

The slow-speed trip may take as long as two months, with Curiosity staying at Glenelg for a month afterward for experiments, NASA said.

NASA eventually plans to drive Curiosity to Gale Crater's central peak, known as Mount Sharp, 18,000 feet, or 3.4 miles, above the crater's valley.

That mountain is the $2.5 billion mission's primary target for scientific study.

During the conference call, NASA reported scientists discovered a scientific instrument aboard Curiosity was not working properly.

One of two sensors on a weather station called the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station was not sending complete information back to Earth, NASA said.

The REMS, contributed by Spain and Finland, measures humidity, pressure, temperatures, wind speeds and ultraviolet radiation. The sensors are located on two short booms that extend out from the side of the rover's main camera mast.

Scientists suspect the troubled sensor's circuit boards were damaged by small rocks and debris kicked up by Curiosity's landing engines, Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada said.

"We will have to be more clever about using the remaining wind sensor to get wind speed and direction," he said.

Watkins added the REMS team was working "pretty hard to understand how to use that remaining, fully operational boom, to best derive wind speed and direction."

Based on measurements so far, Martian air temperatures swing from 28 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 103 degrees Fahrenheit, NASA said.

Ground temperatures change even more between afternoon and pre-dawn morning -- from 37 degrees to minus 132 degrees, NASA said.

"We will learn about changes from day to day and season to season," said Javier Gomez-Elvira of Madrid's Astrobiology Center.

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NASA's Mars rover set for first 'test drive'
Los Angeles (AFP) Aug 21, 2012 - A little more than two weeks after its arrival on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover will on Wednesday make its first "test drive" before setting off on its Red Planet mission, the US space agency said.

The $2.5 billion rover, which landed on Mars on August 6, has performed a battery of tests and appears ready to embark on its two-year mission to explore the Red Planet in the hunt for signs of life, NASA said Tuesday.

On Monday, NASA "did the wheel steering test," said the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission manager, Mike Watkins, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

The size of a small car, the one-ton rover is equipped with six wheels, four of which can pivot. A series of photos posted to the NASA website show the wheels are fully functioning and ready to roll.

"We'll go for our first test drive tomorrow," Watkins told reporters on a teleconference.

"We'll drive about three meters forward, and then turn, and then drive back a little less than that... We don't back up right to the same location that we are in right now."

If the test, set to last "about half an hour, a little less," is a success, Curiosity will leave its landing spot in three or four days, Watkins said.

"We have a couple more activities to complete before we start driving," he said.

Curiosity -- the largest rover ever sent to Mars -- hopes to conquer Mount Sharp as part of its two-year mission to explore the planet and analyze sediment layers that are up to a billion years old.

It will first head in the direction of Glenelg, a spot in Gale Crater less than 500 meters (yards) away from its current position. The site contains three different kinds of terrain that NASA scientists aim to explore.

The rover is expected to adopt a moderate pace of "10, 20, 30 meters a day for a while" but will eventually reach a pace of "over 100 meters a day," Watkins said.

NASA on Tuesday also announced its first real setback of the Curiosity mission -- one of two sensors to measure wind speed has been damaged, probably during landing, and cannot be repaired.

One of the scientists responsible for the rover's weather station, Ashwin Vasavada, said the damage is "a little disappointing," but not "dire," as the other sensor is "completely operational."

"The only thing is that there will be a small ambiguity if the wind were coming directly from behind" the sensor, Vasavada added.

Scientists do not expect Curiosity to find aliens or living creatures but they hope to use it to analyze soil and rocks for signs the building blocks of life are present and may have supported life in the past.

The project also aims to study the Martian environment to prepare for a possible human mission there in the coming years. US President Barack Obama has vowed to send humans to the planet by 2030.


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Where Will Curiosity Go First?
Pasadena CA (JPL) Aug 21, 2012
By now it's old news that NASA's new Mars rover Curiosity is resting safely on the surface of Red Planet after a daredevil landing that had the nation holding its breath. Now, mission scientists are anxious to start moving. With such a sweet set of wheels at their disposal and the "open road" before them, just where will they go first? "We won't have to travel far for excitement," says pro ... read more

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