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Curiosity Mars rover gets ready to roll (+video)

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Curiosity touched down inside Mars' huge Gale Crater on the night of Aug. 5. Since then, the rover team has been systematically checking out Curiosity and its 10 science instruments. Researchers want to make sure the six-wheeled robot is ready for its two-year surface mission, which aims to determine whether Mars could ever have supported microbial life.

Everything looks good so far, researchers have said. It's now time to test out Curiosity's driving system, a stepwise process that begins today (Aug. 20) — Curiosity's 15th full day on the Martian surface, or Sol 15 in mission lingo. [Photos: Curiosity's 2nd Week on Mars]

"On Sol 15, we're going to check out the steering actuators," Biesiadecki told SPACE.com. "We're going to run all the steering actuators one at a time — not through their entire range of motion but through both directions — and end them straight. So we should have all our wheels straight at the end of Sol 15."

If all goes well, the first drive should occur on Sol 16 (which begins Tuesday afternoon), Biesiadecki added. Curiosity will then pause to commemorate her first tentative steps on Mars.

"At the end of that maneuver, we'll be taking images of our tracks," Biesiadecki said. "We'll see the very beginning of our tracks, which I think is going to be kind of a cool picture."

The photography isn't just for historical or gee-whiz purposes, though. The team wants to see how much Curiosity sinks into the ground when it's on the move, Biesiadecki said.

Eager to get on the road

Curiosity's ultimate destination is the base of Mount Sharp, the 3.4-mile-high (5.5 kilometers) mountain rising from Gale Crater's center. Mars-orbiting spacecraft have spotted signs of clays and sulfates in Mount Sharp's lower reaches, suggesting the area was exposed to liquid water long ago.

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