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NASA: Mars rover Curiosity brain surgery complete (+video)

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"We're going to test the steering actuators on Sol 13, and then we are going to take it out for a test drive here probably around Sol 15," Watkins said. "We're going to do a short drive of, you know, a couple of meters, and then maybe turn and back up."

Seeking habitable environments

Curiosity is the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL), which seeks to determine if the Red Planet could ever have hosted microbial life. To get at this question, Curiosity will analyze Martian rocks and soil with 10 different science instruments for the next two years or more.

The MSL team is interested in studying formations near the rover's landing site, which sits just downslope of an ancient alluvial fan — a feature likely created by water flowing downhill. But Curiosity's main target is the base of Mount Sharp, the mysterious 3.4-mile-high (5.5 kilometers) peak rising from Gale's center.

Mount Sharp's many layers preserve a record of Mars' changing environmental conditions going back perhaps a billion years or more, researchers have said. And Mars-orbiting spacecraft have detected evidence of clays and sulfates in the mountain's foothills, suggesting that Mount Sharp's lower reaches were exposed to liquid water long ago.

These foothills lie about 5 miles (8 km) from Curiosity's landing site as the crow flies, researchers said. The rover will have to pick its way through a dune field to get there, and it will likely make a few stops en route to study interesting rocks.

Curiosity can cover about 330 feet (100 meters) per day — about the length of a football field — so it will take the rover a while to reach its destination.

"It's going to take a good part of a year to finally make it to these sediments on Mount Sharp," said MSL deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL.

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