Curiosity rover takes its first drive

Humans have left the first wheel tracks on Mars, following the Curiosity rover’s first, short drive.

It yesterday moved away from its landing site – now named Bradbury Landing for the late science fiction author Ray Bradbury.

The rover moved forward, turned and reversed, finishing up about 20 feet from the spot where it landed 16 days ago. The test drive confirmed that the rover’s able to move properly.

“We have a fully functioning mobility system with lots of amazing exploration ahead,” says head rover driver Matt Heverly.

Curiosity will spend the next few days here, performing instrument checks and studying the surroundings. It will then set out for its first proper destination, about 1,300 feet to the east-southeast.

“Curiosity is a much more complex vehicle than earlier Mars rovers. The testing and characterization activities during the initial weeks of the mission lay important groundwork for operating our precious national resource with appropriate care,” says Curiosity project manager Pete Theisinger of JPL. “Sixteen days in, we are making excellent progress.”

The science team has begun pointing instruments on the rover’s mast at different targets of interest.

Earlier this week, the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument used a laser and spectrometers to examine the composition of rocks exposed when the spacecraft’s landing engines blew away several inches of overlying material.

The instrument’s principal investigator, Roger Weins of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, says this analysis suggests a basaltic composition. “These may be pieces of basalt within a sedimentary deposit,” he says.

Meanwhile, NASA has approved the Curiosity science team’s request to name the landing ground for Ray Bradbury, who was born 92 years ago today and died this year.

“This was not a difficult choice for the science team,” says project scientist Michael Meyer. “Many of us and millions of other readers were inspired in our lives by stories Ray Bradbury wrote to dream of the possibility of life on Mars.”