NASA: Mars Curiosity rover in 'great shape'

NASA engineers focus on making direct contact with rover, raising mast

The rover Curiosity wrapped up its first full day on the Martian surface and is functioning perfectly, NASA officials said Tuesday.

" Curiosity is asleep right now getting ready for tomorrow," said Michael Watkins, a mission systems manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "But we got a call through the orbiter with the status of what happened with that day's activities. Curiosity is healthy and still in great shape."

NASA released photos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing what scientists jokingly called the "crime scene." It shows the rover surrounded by the landing sites of several of its components, such as its heat shield, parachute and sky crane.

Curiosity, which landed in the Gale Crater on Mars early Monday morning ET, completed its first full Martian day of what scientists hope will be a two-year mission. The robotic rover, which is the size of an SUV, is tasked with discovering if Mars has, or has ever had, the materials needed to support life, even in microbial form.

NASA scientists also hope Curiosity will be able to give them enough information to decide whether the Red Planet can support human life one day.

But for now, engineers are working to get Curiosity ready to begin moving across the surface of Mars, scooping up soil samples, blasting rocks with its laser and analyzing the dust. It will take a few weeks to make sure the rover's systems are working properly and to unload its antennas and mast.

During a press conference, Watkins reported that scientists had raised the rover's high-gain antenna, which will be used to communicate directly with Earth. So far, NASA has communicated with Curiosity by using orbiters to relay information back and forth.

He said the antenna has been deployed, has a range of motion and is in good shape. The only catch was that it's not pointed directly toward Earth so direct communications still aren't working. Engineers hope to fix that Wednesday.

Several sensors have been tested, along with a camera on top of the mast, which is still stowed. This camera, which is pointing north, took a color image of the landscape. The image looks murky because the dust cover is still on the camera lens.

NASA also released photos and video sent back from Mars. One photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows what scientists jokingly called the "crime scene" photo. It shows the rover surrounded by the landing sites of several of its components, such as its heat shield, parachute and sky crane.

The mast, which rises to about 7 feet above the ground, carries seven of the rover's 17 cameras. The mast also carries a laser that will be used to zap rocks. The rover's instruments will then analyze the resulting dust and vapor to see if the rock is interesting enough to study up close.

Engineers hope to deploy the mast Wednesday.

"The surface team is pretty excited still," said Watkins. "This is the start of their mission. It's great to keep looking around the neighborhood. My favorite images are those first few images because it gives you an idea of where you are ... This is what a lot of people have been working for five or six years for."

NASA released an image taken by a camera on the Mars rover Curiosity's mast. The image, which was taken with the camera's dust cover still on, is overlayed on a larger image of the landscape. (Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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