NASA's Curiosity makes first drive at Bradbury Landing

Robotic rover also fires its laser at several more rocks as NASA ramps up the science

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took its first, albeit short, drive on the Martian surface today and now scientists say it's just about ready to head out on its first real trek.

"I'm pleased to report that Curiosity today had her first successful drive on Mars," said Matt Heverly, NASA's mobility systems engineer for the rover. "This drive checkout, coupled with yesterday's wheel checkout means we have a fully functioning drive system on the rover."

Heverly, speaking during an afternoon news conference, said the rover drove forward a few meters, turned in place and drove back. He also said the short drive showed researchers that the rover is on firm ground, without too much sinkage.

Today's drive, no matter how short, was a critical step for Curiosity. "It couldn't be more important," said Peter Theisinger, Curiosity project manager. "We built a rover. Unless the rover roves, we really haven't accomplished anything. The fact that everything is on track is a moment - a big moment."

And in a nod to American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, NASA named Curiosity's landing site "Bradbury Landing."

Michael Mayer, a mission scientist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said his peers wanted to honor the man who wrote The Martian Chronicles and inspired many of them to be curious about space exploration and Mars specifically.

Now, with the first drive milestone behind them, NASA engineers aren't wasting time ramping up the science.

Roger Wiens, a scientist with the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a lead investigator on the Curiosity team, reported that just days after first firing the rover's laser, Curiosity has zapped several more rock targets.

So far, the analysis of the makeup of the different rocks shows they're all very similar.

NASA also announced that the rover has been able to take several all-day, all-night weather readings.

In the days ahead, researchers will focus on several different instruments and tests, including doing two days of atmospheric readings, taking long-range 3D images with the Mast cam and checking the alignment of the laser. Scientists also plan to use the rover to spend a few days examining scour marks that Curiosity's landing engines made in the soil.

Once those tests are complete, NASA engineers will focus on their next big step -- driving Curiosity to Glenelg.

Glenelg, an area of interest because three different terrains meet there, is about 400 meters from Curiosity's landing spot.

On the way to Glenelg, NASA engineers hope the rover will encounter scoopable fine soil. If it does, the rover will spend a few weeks there. First it'll scoop and discard several samples to make sure the scoop is clear of any debris it may have picked up during landing. Then it will scoop more soil and analyze it.

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.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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