Friday, September 7, 2012

Mars rover Curiosity pauses for robot arm checkout

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has driven some 357 feet from its landing site on the floor of Gale Crater — 269 feet as a martian crow might fly — on its way to an intriguing area about five times farther away where three different types of rock come together. Project officials said Thursday the rover continues to chalk up near perfect scores during extended checkout operations, with detailed robot arm tests on tap over the next week or so.

“We’ve been on the surface of Mars for about a month and Curiosity continues very healthy and continues to surprise us with how well she’s doing everything we ask of her,” said Mission Manager Mike Watkins. “We’ve continued to drive a little bit. We are about a football field or so away from the touchdown point.”

Curiosity is slowly making its way toward an area known as Glenelg, where orbital photographs show three different rock types come together. A new photograph from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the rover with its tire tracks stretching behind it, a clearly visible sign of the vehicle’s slow-but-steady progress across the floor of Gale Crater.

But flight controllers are pausing the trip for about a week to thoroughly test the rover’s robot arm and its turret of instruments and sample collection tools.

During its first few weeks on Mars, Curiosity has collected spectacular pictures of the area around the landing site along with valuable scientific data from a laser-firing spectrometer known as ChemCam, a radiation monitor, a compact weather station and a Russian instrument that remotely probes the ground below the rover.

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