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Martian Diaries

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Kicking the Tires
By Jeffrey Marlow

Wiggle in the Gravel
This set of images shows the movement of the rear right wheel of NASA's Curiosity as rover drivers turned the wheels in place at the landing site on Mars.

Mars rovers, by definition, rove. That's kind of the point: to spin the wheels and carry scientific instruments across the landscape, facilitating the investigation of martian geology.

The science team is already identifying potential targets and salivating over the rock layers of Mount Sharp, and with the alluring targets on the horizon, everyone's eager to start driving.

And now, so is Curiosity.

Mobility systems engineer Matt Heverly explains the reasoning behind the rover's extended start-up time. "The first thing we wanted to do on the surface is make sure everything's healthy," he says. This has meant an extensive check-up of Curiosity's instruments and software, a phase Heverly describes as "engineering housekeeping." The team needed to make sure that no mechanical components had gotten caught or jammed during the shake, rattle, and roll of launch, transit, and landing. Over the weekend, Curiosity stretched its arm - a critical check-up for the "contact" portion of the scientific arsenal, the instruments that will get up close and personal with rock targets.

So far, all of the instruments are looking good, and the next step was to kick the tires. The stakes are difficult to overstate: Curiosity's scientific journey gets a lot less interesting the moment a rover turns into a lander. Curiosity's main scientific targets are the mineralogically intriguing layers of Mount Sharp. The rocks are known as a "go-to" target, meaning that the mission's most fundamental requirements and scientific ambitions demand mobility.

The first step in confirming movement happened yesterday, as rover drivers wriggled Curiosity's wheels. The maneuver was intended, as Heverly puts it, "to make sure the steer motors are working correctly and the rover will be able to turn." In several days, "we'll do the same thing for the drive motors to make sure that the wheel actuators are doing what they're supposed to." The plan is to drive forward five meters, turn the rover 120 degrees to the right, and drive backward three meters.

Driving is an essential aspect of Curiosity's mission, so it's important to be patient and make sure the mechanics operate correctly. But Heverly, for one, is looking forward to the open road. "Everyone is anxiously awaiting the time of doing science,and it's going to be some fun driving," he says.