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Mars rover Curiosity can vaporize rocks, roam the Red Planet

August 17, 2012 |  4:26 am

NASA has been preparing for years to move the rover around Mars. And next week, officials are likely to start taking Curiosity for a spin.

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

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.

Morin reported that NASA's "drivers" are awaiting the chance to operate Curiosity, a device twice the size of its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, and loaded with improvements, such as a nuclear battery and a laser that can vaporize rock.

Unlike the popular vision of mission controllers guiding the rover with a joystick or steering wheel, JPL scientists will spend entire days crafting computer code that must take into account every boulder and crevice that Curiosity spots with its onboard cameras.


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