NASA Mars Rover Takes First Tentative Drive, Names Landing Area For Ray Bradbury

By Max Eddy on August 22, 2012 10:43 PM EDT

Curiosity First Trip
After rolling across the surface of Mars, Curiosity looks back at its tracks. (Photo: NASA)

Earlier today, the Curiosity rover took its first drive across the Martian surface. The trip, though brief, is an important shakedown as NASA prepares to begin the robot's science mission in earnest.

Despite being stationary for nearly two weeks, the Mars Science Laboratory has already had a number of important firsts. Just days ago, it fired the most powerful laser ever used off of Earth. Prior to that, its dramatic landing on the Red Planet employed new techniques to successfully deliver the multi-ton rover to the surface of Mars.

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According to NASA, the trip was a short one. Curiosity drove forward about ten feet, turned, and then rolled backwards another ten feet. Though brief, the trip allowed NASA engineers to test all of the rover's primary movement capabilities.

Part of how NASA engineers will judge Curiosity's first trip will likely be the asymmetric patterns on the rover's wheels. These allow Earthly observers to clearly see how much territory the rover is covering. It also leaves NASA's mark on the Red Planet, spelling out the initials of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory - J-P-L - in morse code.

In addition to this short, initial journey, NASA has also christened the landing site of the Mars rover. The space agency chose to honor recently deceased author Ray Bradbury, whose book The Martian Chronicles is considered a pillar of modern science fiction.

"This was not a difficult choice for the science team," NASA program scientist Michael Meyer said in a press release. "Many of us and millions of other readers were inspired in our lives by stories Ray Bradbury wrote to dream of the possibility of life on Mars."

As exciting as seeing the rover finally start moving, Curiosity isn't quite ready to begin its 1,300 foot journey to its first target called Glenelg. That said, NASA engineers had a well-earned celebration earlier today as the first images from Curiosity's little jaunt were received.

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