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Mars rover Curiosity plans first road trip, rock-zapping laser test

August 18, 2012 |  8:31 am

NASA officials have chosen the first destination for Mars rover Curiosity, which is expected to take its first drive next week.

The destination is called Glenelg, which is about 1,300 feet from the rover landing site.

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.

Since its dramatic touchdown on Mars on Aug. 5, Curiosity has been doing an extended "stretch" of sorts -- unfolding its limbs, testing its cameras and sending reassuring notes back to Earth.

In the coming days, engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge will test the rover's steering actuators. Then Curiosity is to take its first few "steps" -- driving perhaps a few feet before turning around and surveying the spot where it landed.

The drivers are now awaiting the chance to operate Curiosity, a device twice the size of predecessors Spirit and Opportunity and loaded with improvements such as a nuclear battery and a laser that can vaporize rock. If all goes well, the rover will begin making tracks next week after a full system check.

On Saturday night, Curiosity is supposed to test its rock-zapping laser. Curiosity is expected to do some drilling when it arrives at its first destination.


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NASA's "Mohawk guy" becomes face of Mars mission

NASA drivers await chance to operate biggest, baddest Mars rover

-- Monte Morin, Amina Khan and Shelby Grad