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Mars rover ramps up for its first test drive (+video)

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"We have looked at images like this so many thousands of times in our test environment," he says. Now, Mars is in the background of the images, rather than test-bed walls.

"It's really a great feeling," he said during a briefing Tuesday.

The rock-zapping ChemCam, also at Curiosity's masthead, conducted its first test on Sunday, revealing a 3-inch-wide target rock to be volcanic basalts, as the research team had anticipated. On Monday, they turned ChemCam's laser on a patch of Martian turf the team has named Goulburn.

It's one of four locations around Curiosity where the rocket motors from the rover's descent stage altered the surface. Goulburn is of special interest because the blast from the descent stage wiped the surface clean, exposing bedrock – a tempting target for the mission's geologists.

Indeed, yesterday they followed up Sunday's highly successful ChemCam test with its first science assignment – using its laser, mini-telescope, and spectrometers to analyze the chemical composition of the exposed bedrock. The results are pending.

The rocket motors that cleared the bedrock may also have triggered a chain of events that rendered useless one set of wind sensors on Curiosity's weather station, sensors that worked as advertised during Curiosity's trip to Mars.

Researchers in Spain and Finland supplied the weather station, whose instruments are housed in two small, offset booms that jut from Curiosity's mast. The wind sensors are built on small circuit boards that must be exposed to the elements in order to take the readings. One of those booms was located near the outside edge of Curiosity's deck as the arm sat folded against the deck for the launch and cruise phases of the mission.

The team noted something unexpected after Curiosity landed. Its deck was strewn with small pebbles. The team suspects that just before Curiosity was cut loose from the rocket-powered sky crane that lowered it to the surface, exhaust from the rocket motors kicked up the pebbles and deposited some of them on Curiosity's deck. Some of those flying pebbles may have struck this outward-facing circuit board, severing some of its fragile connections.

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