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Mars rover Curiosity's set to take a spin in coming days

August 15, 2012 |  4:23 am

[Update: Please note that the Google+ Hangout has been rescheduled from noon, as previously stated, to 11 a.m. Wednesday.]

Mars rover Curiosity is set to drive around the Red Planet a bit beginning next week, NASA announced on Tuesday.

Times Science Writer Amina Khan will discuss the latest movements of Curiosity during a Google+ Hangout on Wednesday at 11 a.m. PDT.

Curiosity had been stretching its limbs and checking out some of its cameras since it touched down on the Red Planet’s surface Aug. 5. This weekend, engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge installed fresh software that will arm the rover with the know-how to do its job on Mars.

PHOTOS: Mars rover mission

Next week, said deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, engineers will take Curiosity for a spin, directing it to roll a few meters before wheeling around to check out its landing spot.

The coming days should also yield even better panoramas of the rover's surroundings, said mission manager Michael Watkins. An earlier image showing off Curiosity’s ultimate target, Mt. Sharp, in the distance had cut off the top of the mountain.

The engineers hadn’t meant to get a partial picture of the 3-mile-high peak, which is thought to bear a valuable rock record of Mars’ early history and is where scientists will search for the ingredients for life. The first few images had been pre-programmed into the rover’s instructions, with no room to adjust the camera frame.

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

The viewing public wasn’t the only group impatient to see a full shot of Curiosity’s goal, lying about five miles away, the scientists said.

“We are dying to see that image also! We talk about it all the time around the control room,” Watkins said. “We want to see that image as much as anybody.”

The researchers released fresh photos, including a sharper image of the rover's landing site from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera. The images, with many different shades and textures of terrain around the rover, piqued the scientists' interest.


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-- Amina Khan