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Mars rover Curiosity begins exploration of red planet

India TV News Desk 23 Aug 2012, 19:00:51 IST
India TV News Desk
Pasadena, Calif, Aug 23: NASA's Curiosity rover took its first test drive around the gravel-strewn Martian terrain on Wednesday, in 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 15 feet (4.6 metres), rotated to a right angle and reversed a short distance, leaving track marks on the ancient soil.

"We drove forward, did a turn in place and backed up and you can see that the soil underneath the rover kind of confirms our expectations that the soil is firm - great for mobility," said Matt Heverly, Curiosity's lead rover driver.

Mission managers were ecstatic that the maiden voyage of the 2.5 billion US dollar mission was glitch-free.

"We built a rover. So unless the rover roves, we really haven't accomplished anything. It's a big moment," said Pete Theisinger at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater near the Martian equator on 5 August 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 on Wednesday.

"I kind of like the name. For one, it was the majority vote of the science team, having been inspired by Ray Bradbury," said Michael Meyer, programme scientist for Curiosity.

"Landing is actually an event - it's not an object. Also, it hearkens back to the time when ships landed on the shores of other new worlds to explore," Meyer said.

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.

Curiosity won't head to Mount Sharp until the end of the year.

Curiosity joins the rover Opportunity, which has been exploring craters in Mars' southern hemisphere since 2004.

Opportunity's twin, Spirit, fell silent in 2010 after getting stuck in a sand trap.