The Mars rover Curiosity has completed its first drive, NASA scientists announced Wednesday, proving that it’s capable of moving farther afield on the Red Planet.
“It couldn’t be more important. We built a rover, so unless the rover roves, we really haven’t accomplished anything,” said Curiosity Project Manager Pete Theisinger at Wednesday's news conference. “The fact that we completely exercised it, and everything was on track, is a big moment.”
Curiosity, situated in Gale Crater, drove forward, turned in place 120 degrees, and backed up. The process took about 16 minutes, including photo-taking, Heverly said, but the driving itself was probably about four to five minutes.
Now that the rover has gotten a “learner’s permit” of sorts, its next destination will be Glenelg, which is 400 meters (1,300 feet) east-southeast from its landing site. This area has three types of terrain, including layered bedrock, which scientists are eying as a place for Curiosity to drill.
From there, it will head to Mount Sharp, which was formed from hundreds of rock layers that built up over time. The mountain is about 3 miles high, but the rover will trek up a small portion of it, testing different layers for signs that life could have once existed on Mars. It may take about a year for the rover to reach this target.
Curiosity’s wheels have holes in them to leave a unique track on Mars, said Matt Heverly, lead rover driver for Curiosity. They do not appear to be sinking much into the terrain.
“We should have smooth sailing ahead of us,” Heverly said.
After some more equipment-checking, the rover will start out with 10-meter journeys per day on Mars, as engineers make sure that the rover can take pictures and identify hazards on its own. After checking out those abilities, they will push it a little farther, going to 20 to 40 meters (65 to 130 feet) per Martian day. The edge of the horizon that the navigation camera can see is 40 meters, Heverly said.
As the team gains even more confidence in the system, Heverly said, they can command the rover to drive 50 to even 100 meters per Martian day, which is about 40 minutes longer an Earth day.
Despite the complexity of landing a 2,000-pound vehicle on another planet, Curiosity had a perfect landing on August 6, and most of the instruments scientists have tested appear to function. There’s only been one glitch so far: a wind sensor on the rover’s weather station was damaged and the reason might always remain mysterious, scientists say.
Thiesinger said it’s fantastic that there haven’t been any early problems, but there’s “a long way to go” before the $2.6 billion mission reaches its full potential. Curiosity has not yet tested its sample-gathering capabilities, for example.
Curiosity is 16 Martian days into what is planned to be a two-year mission. But the rover could potentially last longer; the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity far exceeded their projected lifetimes of 90 days. Opportunity is still operating.
Also at Wednesday’s media briefing, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists honored science fiction writer Ray Bradbury by naming Curiosity’s landing site Bradbury Landing. Bradbury would be 92 on Wednesday.
Bradbury visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2009 on the five-year anniversary of the beginning of the Mars Exploration Rover mission, which encompassed twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Rover drivers showed Bradbury how they use a three-dimensional simulation to figure out how to tell the rover where to go.
To the end the news conference, NASA played a 2009 video tribute to Bradbury.
“When he came to the operations room and we showed him the model of the rover and the large scale panoramic pictures that we've taken, the actual photographs of the surface of the planet, it was like watching him experience it as a child almost would experience it, just the wonderment,” NASA engineer Ashley Stroupe, a rover driver for the Mars Exploration Rover mission, said in the video.
“He has never lost that wonder for Mars that he’s always conveyed in his books.”