The Mars rover Curiosity, which landed on the Martian surface on the night of Aug. 5, is about to take its first baby steps – or test drive, or whatever your preferred metaphor is – on the way to exploring the terrain around it.
Overnight, U.S. time, mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said they plan to send Curiosity the computer commands to send it on its first short trip. If everything works, it will move forward three meters (about 10 feet), turn right 90 degrees, and then back up a little bit.
That’s it. But the longest journey begins with a single step. Ultimately, NASA said it hopes the rover will be able to travel more than 100 yards per day over at least a two-year period, probing the Martian landscape for signs that it might once have been a home to microbial life.
“You will definitely see tracks,” said Mike Watkins, the mission manager, in a teleconference. The first drive will tell controllers the rover’s six wheels are working properly, that it can turn in place as designed, and that it’s ready to move on later this week.
The test drive should last about half an hour. It should take place in mid-afternoon, Mars time, when it’s warmest and the rover’s parts don’t have to be heated up. NASA hopes there will be no surprises.
“We want to park it in a place we’ve imaged with our stereo cameras,” said Watkins, “just to make sure there’s nothing there.”
Controllers said they will be more bold over time. The rover is in good shape so far after its nail-biter of a landing (recall the references to “seven minutes of terror” NASA promised) though a small wind detector is damaged.
Meanwhile, it’s almost summer-like at Gale Crater, where Curiosity put down. Engineers reported the soil around the rover reached an afternoon high temperature of 37 degrees Fahrenheit on a recent Martian day, then dropped overnight to 131 degrees below zero.