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Mars rover Curiosity prepares for first ride on Red Planet

August 22, 2012 |  8:19 am

Anticipation is building for the Mars rover Curiosity's first drive, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

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

Scientists and the public have been eagerly awaiting this phase of the mission and what information about the Red Planet it will yield.

NASA has planned a briefing for 11:30 a.m. PDT.

Times science writer Amina Khan discussed anticipation among scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory 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.

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

She also explained how the rover aimed its laser over the weekend at 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.

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.

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

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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