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Mars rover Curiosity makes first test drive

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    Aug. 22, 2012: The Curiosity rover's wheel tracks on the surface of Mars are seen in an image sent from one of the rover's cameras.AP Photo/NASA

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    Aug. 22, 2012: NASA's Curiosity rover explores the surface of the dusty red planet.NASA/JPL-Caltech

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    This Aug. 18, 2012 image provided by NASA shows the Curiosity rover's landing site and Mount Sharp in the distance. The six-wheel rover took its first test drive on Wednesday Aug. 22,2012 as a warm-up for the long trek to the mountain expected later this year.AP Photo/NASA

  • curiosity roving on mars.jpg

    Aug. 7, 2012: NASA's Curiosity rover captures a sliver of itself -- and whole chunk of the Martian landscape, using one of the rover's Navigation cameras looking back over its left shoulder. The rim of Gale Crater is the lighter colored band across the horizon.NASA/JPL-Caltech

The NASA rover Curiosity made its first test drive Wednesday on ancient soil of Mars.

"Wheel tracks on Mars," Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Allen Chen tweeted along with an image sent from one of the rover's cameras. "The EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) team is finally done. Congrats to the mobility and surface teams!"

The rover moved forward about 15 feet, rotated to a right angle and reversed a short distance.

The drive was successful and means the rover's mobility system is fully functional, lead rover planner Matt Heverly told a JPL press conference.

"We're very excited to have this kind of milestone behind us," Heverly said. "We see that the system is performing very well and we're in a great place to do some science."

Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars exploration program, announced that Curiosity's touchdown site has been named Bradbury Landing in honor of "The Martian Chronicles" author Ray Bradbury, who would have been 92 on Wednesday. Bradbury, an inspiration to many on the Curiosity team, died in June.

'The system is performing very well and we're in a great place to do some science.'

- Lead rover planner Matt Heverly

The test drive is part of a health checkup the rover has been undergoing since arriving on Aug. 5. Eventually, the rover could roam hundreds of feet a day over the ancient crater where it landed.

Meanwhile, researchers discovered a damaged wind sensor while checking out instruments that Curiosity will use to check the Martian weather and soil.

The cause of the damage wasn't known, but one possibility is that pebbles thrown up by Curiosity's descent fell onto the sensor's delicate, exposed circuit boards and broke some wires, said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity.

A second sensor is operating and should do the job, but Vasavada said scientists may "have to work a little harder" to determine wind speed and direction, which are important factors that can determine when the rover is allowed to move.

"But we think we can work around that," he added.

Scientists also continued to test and calibrate Curiosity's 7-foot (2.1-meter)-long arm and its extensive tool kit -- which includes a drill, a scoop, a spectrometer and a camera -- in preparation for collecting its first soil samples and attempting to learn whether the Martian environment was favorable for microbial life.