NASA rover takes first drive on Mars

Curiosity takes 16-minute drive taking pictures as $2.5bn mission begins search for signs of life on Red Planet.

    NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has taken a 16-minute drive, its first since reaching the Red Planet to search for habitats that could have supported microbial life.

    "Curiosity today had its first successful drive on Mars. We have a fully functioning mobility system on our rover," Matt Haverly, the lead rover planner at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said on Wednesday.

    The $2.5bn, two-year mission, NASA's first astrobiology initiative since the 1970s-era Viking probes, kicked off on August 6, with a risky, but successful landing at a site NASA has named "Bradbury Landing", a nod to the late science fiction author and space aficionado Ray Bradbury.

    Aside from a quick steering test earlier in the week, the one-tonne rover had stood firmly on its six wheels since touching down inside an ancient impact basin called Gale Crater, located in the planet's southern hemisphere near the equator.

    At 10:17am EDT on Wednesday, Curiosity became a rover, trudging out a total of 4.5 metres, turning 120 degrees and then backing up 2.5 metres to position itself beside its first science target, a scour mark left behind by the rover's descent engine.

    Signs of life

    Most of Curiosity's drive time was spent taking pictures, including the first images of the rover's tread marks in the Martian soil.

    "It couldn't be more important. We built a rover, so unless the rover roves, we really haven't accomplished anything," said Pete Theisinger, project manager with NASA's JLP.

    "We haven't exercised the sample gathering capability, which is a key, key, key element of the rover's science mission," he added.

    Engineers saw no problems during Curiosity's test drive, clearing the way for a first round of analysis of rock blasted clean by the rover's landing system engine.

    More tests will be conducted before Curiosity takes off on its full mission to search for signs of life on the Red Planet.

    The project also aims to study the Martian environment to prepare for a possible human mission there in the coming years.

    Curiosity is due to make a longer drive in about a week to a place where three different types of terrain come together.

    "The soil is firm, great for mobility," said lead rover planner Heverly. "We should have smooth sailing ahead of us."

    SOURCE: Agencies


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