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Mars rover Curiosity set for first ride on Red Planet's surface

August 22, 2012 |  3:56 am

Mars Rover Curiosity is set to take its first drive -- albeit a short one -- Wednesday.

Times science writer Amina Khan discussed anticipation at NASA over Curiosity's first moves on the Mars surface.  Khan wrote:

Engineers at JPL have now tested out the six-wheeled rover’s four steering wheels on each corner of its body.  With the wheels rotating as expected, the NASA team members say they will be sending commands that will have the rover move 3 meters forward – about the rover’s length – and then turn 90 degrees and back up. Curiosity will then get its first look at its own landing spot. That exercise should take about 30 minutes, officials said.

In the coming days, the rover will venture 1,300 feet from its landing site to check out another interesting spot called Glenelg, a potentially drill-worthy zone where three types of terrain meet.

PHOTOS: Mars rover mission | PANORAMA: 360-degree view from Curiosity

She also explained how the rover used its laser over the weekend on a nearby rock named Coronation, hitting the softball-size chunk with 30 pulses in 10 seconds.

With more than 1 million watts of power in each 5-billionths-of-a-second pulse, the laser shots from the  ChemCam instrument vaporized the rock into plasma. The device then used its spectrometers to analyze the  elemental composition.

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

Like the initial photos taken by Curiosity’s cameras, the laser exercise was meant to test whether ChemCam was working properly. But it could also provide some useful scientific insight. If the composition of the plasma seemed to change over those 30 pulses, then it could mean the laser was digging into successive layers of rock with each pulse.