Mars rover Curiosity makes first test drive (video)

PASADENA, Calif. — The NASA rover Curiosity made its first test drive Wednesday on ancient soil of Mars.

“Wheel tracks on Mars,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Allen Chen tweeted along with an image sent from one of the rover’s cameras. “The EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) team is finally done. Congrats to the mobility and surface teams!”

Details of the short drive were to be discussed at a late-morning press conference.

The rover was expected to have moved forward about 10 feet (3 meters), turn right, then back up and park slightly to the left of its old spot.

The test drive is part of a health checkup the rover has been undergoing since arriving on Aug. 5. Eventually, the rover could roam hundreds of feet a day over the ancient crater where it landed.

Meanwhile, researchers discovered a damaged wind sensor while checking out instruments that Curiosity will use to check the Martian weather and soil.

The cause of the damage wasn’t known, but one possibility is that pebbles thrown up by Curiosity’s descent fell onto the sensor’s delicate, exposed circuit boards and broke some wires, said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity.

A second sensor is operating and should do the job, but Vasavada said scientists may “have to work a little harder” to determine wind speed and direction, which are important factors that can determine when the rover is allowed to move.

“But we think we can work around that,” he added.

Scientists also continued to test and calibrate Curiosity’s 7-foot-long arm and its extensive tool kit — which includes a drill, a scoop, a spectrometer and a camera — in preparation for collecting its first soil samples and attempting to learn whether the Martian environment was favorable for microbial life.

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