Mars Rover Curiosity Ready for Test Drive

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After acing a steering test, NASA’s new Mars rover will go for short drive on Wednesday, its first move since reaching the Red Planet on Aug 6.

Curiosity won’t break any distance records during its test drive, which is expected to last about 30 minutes. The one-ton, six-wheeled rover should travel about 10 feet forward, pivot its wheels and back up, reparking at a 90-degree angle from its starting point inside Gale Crater.

CLICK IMAGE TO SEE ANIMATION OF CURIOSITY WIGGLING ITS WHEEL (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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“Everything’s in fine shape and that means we’re go for our first test drive,” mission manager Michael Watkins said told reporters during a conference call Tuesday.

“Everything looks go for that right now.”

Ultimately, the rover will head to a three-mile-high mound of layered rock rising from the floor of Gale Crater, the remains of sediment that likely filled the basin long ago.

The goal of the $2.5 billion, two-year mission is to search for habitats that could have supported or perhaps still support microbial life.

The 400-plus member science team received its first bit of bad news this week. One of the rover’s two wind sensors is broken and likely out of commission for the mission.

Engineers believe delicate wires on the sensor’s exposed circuit boards may have been broken by debris that rained down on the rover during its rocket-powered descent. The wind sensors extend like two fingers on the ends of miniature booms extending

horizontally from the rover’s mast.

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“It does appear that some small rocks became lofted in the winds that were generated by the plumes during landing and probably just fell upon the rover deck,” said Curiosity deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion

Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“Some of these rocks may have fallen on these exposed circuit boards and damaged the wires. That’s just one potential cause. We don’t know for sure and we don’t really have a way of assessing that at this point any further,” he said.

The lose of one sensor may make it more challenging for scientists to determine wind speed and direction inside Gale Crater, located near the planet’s equator.

“We’ll have to work a little harder to understand when the wind may be coming from a direction that would be masked by (Curiosity’s) mast … but we think we can work around that,” Vasavada said.

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Scientists suspect that winds long ago circled inside the crater, transporting sediment that eventually built up Mount Sharp, which rises slightly above the basin’s rim. Winds also likely play a role in forming and moving sand dunes that ring Mount

Sharp today.

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“We are trying to figure out how much sediment is going in today, how much is able to be carried out and then projecting that backward in time, using our computer

simulations, to figure out basically how the mound came to be and what processes

have shaped it and formed it and then eroded it over time,” Vasavada said.

With a single wind sensor, “we can do very well,” he added. “The only thing is there would be a small ambiguity if the wind were coming from directly behind the boom.”

Image: A mosaic from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows the vehicle’s left side and two blast marks from the descent engine’s rocket. The rim of Gale Crater is the

lighter colored band across the horizon. Bits of debris kicked up by the landing engine’s rocket are visible on the rover’s top deck. Engineers suspect a debris hit broke one of the rover’s wind sensors. 
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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