Curiosity rover to test wheels, fire rock-shooting laser

August 18th, 2012 - 5:10 pm ICT by IANS  

Los Angeles, Aug 18 (IANS) The robotic explorer Curiosity is ready to test its six wheels to see whether it can roll along the Martian soil and fire its rock-vaporizing laser for the first time in the next few days, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, announced.

Since its landing Aug 5, engineers have been testing Curiosity’s 10 spectacular instruments to make sure they function well, reported Xinhua.

The Martian rover has measured the local environment, determining that the temperature surrounding the rover was 37 degrees Fahrenheit or 2.7 degrees Celsius, according to JPL.

It has also taken photos of the surrounding terrain at the base of Mount Sharp, the rover’s eventual target.

Within the next couple of days, the team plans to test the wheel movements and see if the rover is ready to go, said geologist John Grotzinger, project scientist for the mission, at a JPL press conference Friday.

The rover will move to its nearest scientific targets, surface areas that were scorched by the rover’s descent stage rockets, uncovering some interesting rocks beneath.

These areas have all been named after important geologic formations in Northern Canada and share the theme of heat: Burnside, Hepburn, Goulburn, and Sleepy Dragon.

Grotzginer said the Goulburn scour has attracted the most attention since it has some interesting patterns of colour with lighter and darker parts.

The first major driving target has been named Glenelg, which lies a bit east of the rover’s landing spot, according to JPL.

A number of interesting geologic targets lie here, including small craters that will give insight into the Martian subsurface and terrain that will be useful for testing Curiosity’s drill and scoop.

After exploring Glenelg, the rover will pass through the area again, hence the palindromic name that the team gave it. “We get it both coming and going,” Grotzinger joked.

“With such a great landing spot in Gale Crater, we literally had every degree of the compass to choose from for our first drive,” Grotzinger said.

“We had a bunch of strong contenders. It is the kind of dilemma planetary scientists dream of, but you can only go one place for the first drilling for a rock sample on Mars. That first drilling will be a huge moment in the history of Mars exploration,” Grotzinger added.

The trek to Glenelg will send the rover 1,300 feet east-southeast of its landing site. One of the three types of terrain intersecting at Glenelg is layered bedrock, which is attractive as the first drilling target.

“We’re about ready to load our new destination into our GPS and head out onto the open road,” Grotzinger said.

“Our challenge is there is no GPS on Mars, so we have a roomful of rover-driver engineers providing our turn-by-turn navigation for us,” said Grotzinger.

Prior to the rover’s trip to Glenelg, the team in charge of Curiosity’s chemistry and camera instrument, or ChemCam, is planning to give their mast-mounted, rock-zapping laser and telescope combination a thorough checkout.

On Saturday night, ChemCam is expected to “zap” its first rock. It will be the first time such a powerful laser has been used on the surface of another world.

“Rock N165 looks like your typical Mars rock, about three inches wide. It’s about 10 feet away,” said Roger Wiens, principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

“We are going to hit it with 14 millijoules of energy 30 times in 10 seconds. It is not only going to be an excellent test of our system, it should be pretty cool too,” Wiens said.

“There will be a lot of important firsts that will be taking place for Curiosity over the next few weeks, but the first motion of its wheels, the first time our roving laboratory on Mars does some actual roving, that will be something special,” said Michael Watkins, mission manager for Curiosity from JPL.

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