Mars rover takes first drive; touchdown spot named for Ray Bradbury

After two weeks of taking stock of its surroundings, the Mars Curiosity rover has taken its first “baby steps” and sent back images of its first tracks, NASA officials said Wednesday.

Engineers sent the commands Tuesday night for this first drive, which took about 16 minutes -- mostly spent taking pictures, said lead rover driver Matt Heverly. During the test, the rover moved forward about 4½ meters, turned 120 degrees in place and then backed up 2½ meters -- ending up about 6 meters, or roughly 20 feet, from its landing spot. As it moved forward, its boxy head turned from side to side, taking shots of its wheels in the process.

According to Heverly, the tracks in the Martian soil indicate, as expected, that the soil is firm, didn’t cause the rover to sink much and should be great for moving around in.

PANORAMA: Tire tracks on Mars | PHOTOS: Mars rover mission


“We should have smooth sailing ahead of us,” Heverly said.

That’s good news, given that the rover is set to start driving to its first potential drill target within several days. That spot is called Glenelg, some 1,300 feet east-southeast of the landing site. Glenelg sits at a point where three different types of terrain meet, and could potentially be the first site where the rover uses its drill.

Controllers aren’t sure how long the drive may take, as they may stop to check out interesting things along the way, said deputy project scientist Joy Crisp. For example, the team plans to make a pit stop on the way if it finds soil fine enough to practice using its scooping tool.

NASA officials also announced that the touchdown spot has been officially named “Bradbury Landing,” in honor of the renowned science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who died earlier this year. He would have been 92 years old on Wednesday.

Bradbury, whose works include “The Martian Chronicles,” “Fahrenheit 451" and “The Illustrated Man,” inspired readers to think about Mars in new ways, said NASA program scientist Michael Meyer.

“ ‘The Martian Chronicles’ have inspired our curiosity and opened our minds to the possibility of life on Mars,” Meyer said.

Bradbury had always been a friend to Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said Mars Science Laboratory project manager Pete Theisinger. At a news conference Wednesday, officials played a clip from the arrival of Mariner 9 at Mars in 1971, attended by the likes of Bradbury and physicist Carl Sagan.

PANORAMA: Tire tracks on Mars | PHOTOS: Mars rover mission


“I was hoping that during the last few days, as we got closer to Mars and the dust cleared, that we’d see a lot of Martians standing there with huge signs saying, ‘Bradbury was right,’ ” the author joked at the time, to loud guffaws from the audience.

Wednesday has also been officially declared Space Day in California by Gov. Jerry Brown, who was visiting JPL on Wednesday.

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