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Mars rover tracks spell out Morse code message (+video)

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Curiosity's signature wheel-print was a nod to NASA's lead center for unmanned planetary exploration, which built the rover and now commands it as Curiosity prepares to explore Mars in search of conditions habitable to past or present life.

The dashes and dots are more than just an autograph on the ground. They serve as "visual odometry" marks, which allow Curiosity's engineers to determine the position and orientation of the rover, as well as how far it traveled, by analyzing images of its tracks.

"We have intentionally put holes in the wheels to leave a unique track on Mars," Heverly said. "So if we are in sand dunes where we don't have lots of rock features around us, we can use those patterns to do our visual odometry."

In addition to the Morse code JPL, Curiosity's wheels also feature a zigzag cleat pattern.

Check out, then roll out

Curiosity's short test drive was the latest in a series of instrument and equipment checkouts that the rover needs to pass before heading out toward its first major science target.

Earlier this week, Curiosity extended its 7-foot (2.1-m) robotic arm, which is capped by a turret of tools including a camera, drill, spectrometer, scoop and the mechanisms for sieving and portioning samples of powdered rock and soil.

"We unstowed the robotic arm and took a look at the tools on [its] end. It's kind of a Swiss army knife there where we have a lot of instruments," said Curiosity mission manager Michael Watkins of JPL. "We wanted to make sure all of that was working by doing these first motor checks, and all of that went successfully."

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