CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – NASA’s latest Mars rover hit the dusty red road this week, putting 21 feet on the odometer in its first test drive.
The Perseverance rover ventured from its landing position on Thursday, two weeks after settling on the red planet to search for signs of past lives.
The roundabout, back and forth drove only 33 minutes and went so well that more driving was on tap Friday and Saturday for the six-wheeled rover.
“This is really the start of our journey here,” said Rich Rieber, NASA engineer who planned the route. “This is going to be like Odyssey, adventure along the way, hopefully no Cyclops, and I̵
In its first run, Perseverance advanced 13 meters (4 meters), took a 150-degree turn to the left, and then backed up 2.5 meters (8 feet). During a news conference Friday, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California shared photos of its tracks over and around small rocks.
“I do not think I have ever been happier to see ruts, and I have seen many of them,” said engineer Anais Zarifian.
Air traffic controllers still control all Perseverance systems. So far, so good. The rover’s 7-foot (2 meter) robotic arm, for example, flexed its muscles for the first time on Tuesday.
Before the car-sized rover can head towards an ancient river delta to collect rocks for possible return to Earth, it must drop its so-called protective “belly pan” and release an experimental helicopter called Ingenuity.
As it turns out, endurance landed right on the edge of a potential helicopter runway – a nice, flat spot, according to Rieber. So the plan is to drive out of this runway, ditch the pot and then return to Ingenuity’s highly anticipated test flight. All this must be achieved by late spring.
Scientists are debating whether to take the smoother route to get to the nearby delta or a possibly harder way with exciting remnants from the once watery time 3 billion to 4 billion years ago.
Endurance – NASA’s largest and most detailed rover yet – became the ninth US spacecraft to successfully land on Mars on 18 February. China hopes to land its smaller rover – currently orbiting the red planet – in a few months.
Meanwhile, NASA scientists announced Friday that they have named Perseverance’s touchdown site in honor of the late science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, who grew up next to JPL in Pasadena. She was one of the first African Americans to receive widespread attention for science fiction. Her works included “Bloodchild and Other Stories” and “Parable of the Sower.”
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