NASA's next Mars rover took its first tiny test drive at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Friday. If all goes well, it will be en route to the Red Planet by late next year on a mission to look for environments that could have once harbored life. The Mars Science Laboratory rover, now christened "Curiosity," received its key parts this month:
Spacecraft technicians and engineers attached the Curiosity rover's neck and head (called the Remote Sensing Mast) to its body, and mounted two navigation cameras (Navcams), two mast cameras (Mastcam) and the laser-toting chemistry camera (ChemCam). Curiosity was also sporting a new set of six aluminum wheels, each about 20 inches (about half a meter) in diameter, as it took its first drive on Earth. The large rover now stands at about 7 feet (2 meters) tall [MSNBC].
With its major pieces attached, Curiosity is about the size of an SUV. It dwarfs the overachieving Spirit and Opportunity rovers
that have been on the martian surface since 2004. JPL scientists broadcast a live feed of the rover's first roll back and forth.
"It's the first full integrated test of the rover, where we have all the wheels assembled, the mobility system as well as the electronics that drive the rover," said Rene Fradet, the mission's flight system manager [Spaceflight Now].
But there are baby steps for Curiosity, with its handlers giving it basic instructions via an electronic hookup rather than running the software that will guide the rover on Mars. The trip there takes about nine months, so if the Mars Science Laboratory project takes off on schedule, Curiosity should arrive there in August 2012. Curiosity will study martian geology in greater detail than previously possible. It may get the chance to expand on the work of the Phoenix Lander, which uncovered water ice on Mars
, or even investigate the mysterious methane plumes
that some scientists say could point to life—but others believe could be simply geologic. Related Content: DISCOVER: Those Mars Rovers Keep on Going and Going…