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Mars rover Curiosity: 'Smooth sailing ahead of us,' NASA says

August 23, 2012 |  4:06 am

Mars Curiosity rover has taken its first "baby steps" on the Red Planet surface, NASA announced.

Times Science Writer Amina Khan discussed the first moves for Curiosity and what the next few weeks have in store for the rover during a Google+ Hangout.

Khan reported Wednesday:

Engineers sent the commands Tuesday night for this first drive, which took about 16 minutes -- mostly spent taking pictures, said lead rover driver Matt Heverly. During the test, the rover moved forward about 4½ meters, turned 120 degrees in place and then backed up 2½ meters -- ending up about 6 meters, or roughly 20 feet, from its landing spot. As it moved forward, its boxy head turned from side to side, taking shots of its wheels in the process.

According to Heverly, the tracks in the Martian soil indicate, as expected, that the soil is firm, didn’t cause the rover to sink much and should be great for moving around in.

“We should have smooth sailing ahead of us,” Heverly said.

That’s good news, given that the rover is set to start driving to its first potential drill target within several days. That spot is called Glenelg, some 1,300 feet east-southeast of the landing site. Glenelg sits at a point where three different types of terrain meet, and could potentially be the first site where the rover uses its drill.

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

Los Angeles Times science writer Monte Morin discussed how the rover will roam around the Red Planet during a Google+ Hangout on Thursday.

Morin reported that this is a stressful time for the drivers:

They must sacrifice some of their Earthly existence and live on Mars time, an ever-changing schedule that is tougher than any graveyard shift. For months, operators will be essentially sequestered from family and friends to focus on Mars. While the mission is scheduled to run 23 months, it could last much longer.

The stress can be overwhelming. Separated from the rover by millions of miles, they know they can make no mistakes. A single slip-up can turn the ambitious scientific mission into a $2.5-billion Martian paperweight. It will feel at times like the entire world is a back-seat driver.


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