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

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Over the past few days, the rover has given its steerable corner wheels a twist to the left and a twist to the right to ensure that they function. It has extended its 7-foot-long arm out and back in, twisting its joints to make sure they all flex – especially at the business end, where a small turret full of rock-sampling tools sits. And tomorrow it takes its first test drive – all of about 10 feet – where it will pivot in place and drive backward part of the way. From an engineering standpoint, that's what it's all about.

Images of the robotic arm's test taken by the rover's navigation camera atop its 7-foot-high mast are driving home that the rover isn't operating on a Jet Propulsion Laboratory test bed, Mr. Watkins says.

"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.

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