NASA's Mars rover Curiosity passed an extensive, 26-day health check and is ready to "drive, drive, drive" — as one mission manager put it — to its first science target.
During its final day of instrument tests on Thursday, Curiosity demonstrated it can move its 7-foot long robot arm with precision despite the cold Martian temperatures and the planet's relatively puny gravity.
The nuclear-powered robotic geologist touched down Aug. 6 near a mountain of layered rock rising from the floor of a giant impact crater.
The goal of its $2.5 billion, two-year mission is to assess if the landing site, known as Gale Crater, has or ever had conditions suitable for microbial life.
Curiosity's first trek will be to an unusual patch of terrain where three different types of rock intersect. The region, named Glenelg, is about 1,300 feet away from Curiosity’s present location.
Scientists expect to drive the rover about 130 feet per day, with several stops along the way.
Starting Friday evening, the plan is to "drive, drive, drive" until scientists find a suitable rock for the rover to touch with its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), mission manager Jennifer Trosper told reporters during a conference call Wednesday.
The instruments are located in turret on the end of the robot arm. MAHLI is designed to take close-up, high-resolution pictures of the rocks and soil. APXS, which was provided by the Canadian Space Agency, can determine the relative amounts of different elements in targeted rocks and soil.
Curiosity will stop again when scientists find suitable soil to scoop up and run through its onboard chemistry lab and when they encounter a good rock to test out the rover’s drill.
Curiosity also did a bit of sightseeing during its final day of checkouts. The rover attempted to shoot video of the Martian moon Phobos as it passed in front of the sun. Those images, if they turned out, have not yet been released.
Image: Two images taken by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) were combined to show the rover’s three left wheels. In the distance is the lower slope of Mount Sharp, Curiosity’s ultimate destination. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems