Washington: Curiosity took its first test drive around the gravel-strewn Martian terrain, its preparation for the ultimate road trip to find out if life could have existed on the red planet.
The six-wheel NASA rover did not stray far from the spot where it landed more than two weeks ago. It rolled forward about 4.6 metres, rotated to a right angle and reversed a short distance, leaving track marks on the ancient soil yesterday.
Mission managers were ecstatic that the maiden voyage of the $2.5 billion mission was glitch-free.
“It couldn’t be more important,” said project manager Peter Theisinger at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We built a rover. So unless the rover roves, we really haven’t accomplished anything. It’s a big moment.”
The short spin came a day after Curiosity successfully wiggled its wheels to test its steering capabilities.
Curiosity landed in Gale Crater near the Martian equator August 5 to explore whether the environment once supported microbial life. The touchdown site has been named Bradbury Landing in honour of the late “The Martian Chronicles” author Ray Bradbury, who would have turned 92 yesterday.
The rover’s ultimate destination is Mount Sharp, a towering mountain that looms from the ancient crater floor.
Signs of past water have been spotted at the base, which provides a starting point to hunt for the chemical building blocks of life.
Before Curiosity treks toward the mountain, it will take a detour to an intriguing spot 396 metres away where it will drill into bedrock. With the test drive out of the way, Curiosity was expected to stay at its new position for several days before making its first big drive a trip that will take as long as a month and a half.
Curiosity won’t head to Mount Sharp until the end of the year.
Rover driver Matt Heverly said the first drive took about 16 minutes with most of the time used to take pictures.
Heverly said the wheels did not sink much into the ground, which appeared firm.
“We should have smooth sailing ahead of us,” he said.
After an action-packed landing that delicately lowered it to the surface with nylon cables, Curiosity has entered a slow streak. Since the car-size rover is the most sophisticated spacecraft sent to Mars, engineers have taken their time to make sure the rover is in tiptop shape and that its high-tech tools work before it delves into its mission.