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What Curiosity rover is up to next: Martian target practice (+video)

Curiosity rover is nearing the moment when it will roll its wheels for the first time. But first, there are more tests, including a first zap of a distant rock with ChemCam.

This 11-minute animation depicts key events of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, which will launch in late 2011 and land a rover, Curiosity, on Mars in August 2012.
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After nearly two Earth weeks on the surface of Mars, NASA's rover Curiosity is getting set for target practice.

Within the next few days, scientists using the laser-based ChemCam plan to zap their first rock, a three-inch chunk of what could be volcanic basalt sitting on the surface about nine feet from the rover.

The event will mark another milestone in the methodical checkout of 10 sets of instruments on the one-ton rover. Its mission is to hunt for signs that its new home, Gale Crater and its central summit, Mt. Sharp, might have been hospitable for life early in the planet's history. Any signs of ancient habitats will appear in the chemical makeup of the soils and rocks Curiosity analyzes.

During a briefing on Friday, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist John Grotzinger unveiled a new, high-resolution image of the foothills of Mt. Sharp, roughly four miles from the rover. The foothills – Curiosity's ultimate destination – display distinctive layering that he says is reminiscent of "the Four Corners region of the western US or maybe Sedona, Ariz."

Images of those layers taken from orbit suggest that they contain a range of minerals formed in the presence of liquid water – one of the key elements needed for organic life.

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