(Sen) - Curiosity will soon start making its way across the Martian surface, travelling 400 metres (1,300 feet) across Gale Crater to an area called Glenelg where it will be the first Martian rover to drill for a rock sample. Before turning its wheels for the first time, Curiosity will try out its Chemcam, zapping a small rock that is sitting just a few feet from the rover's landing position.
The rover, whose more formal name is Mars Science Laboratory, landed at Gale Crater on August 6 (UTC). During its first two weeks on the Red Planet its complex systems have been checked to ensure that its operations all survived its incredible journey through the Martian atmosphere to the surface.
Before Curiosity starts driving to Glenelg, team engineers managing the rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will run a series of checks. Curiosity has six wheels but only four - the front and back two - can be steered. Engineers at JPL will first turn each wheel side-to-side and then line up all the wheels in the same direction. Curiosity will then be driven a few feet forward and backwards to ensure the navigational controls and mechanics are all operating within designed parameters.
Michael Watkins, mission manager at JPL, explained: "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."
The chosen destination, Glenelg, is a natural intersection of three kinds of terrain including layered bedrock. When Curiosity gets there it will be the first rover to ever drill for a rock sample.
Project Scientist John Grotzinger briefed journalists: "We're about ready to load our new destination into our GPS and head out onto the open road. 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."
Map of Gale Crater showing the landing site and Curiosity's first destination, Glenelg. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Before moving to Glenelg, Curiosity will try out its Chemical and camera suite - Chemcam - designed to determine elements in rocks and soil. Zapping rocks with the laser will produces a spark which will be measured by the telescope on top of Curiosity’s mast. The laser can target rocks up to seven metres away in order for ChemCam to identify the elements in the rock. The first target is a small rock, about 3 inches wide, that sits about 10 feet away from Curiosity's landing site.
Roger Wiens, principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument, explains: "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."
"N165" - the first rock to be zapped by Curiosity's Chemcam. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity, landed on the Red Planet on August 6 UTC. The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) based in Pasadena, California.
Curiosity is the largest and most advanced rover ever sent to Mars. It's the size of a small car and weighs nearly a tonne, meaning it had to be lowered to the surface by a sky crane. Its primary mission is set to last 687 Earth days - one year on Mars.
Curiosity zapped the rock with its laser on Sunday August 19. Its Chemcam hit the fist-sized rock with 30 pulses of its laser during a 10-second period. Each pulse deliveredcmore than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second. Data was recorded on each pulse and the results are being analysed by scientists.