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Mars rover Curiosity set for first road trip

NASA has revealed plans for Mars rover Curiosity's first drive, an event billed as a "huge moment in history." The rover is on a quest to discover whether the red planet could have ever supported life.

The Mars rover Curiosity is going through the final stages of preparation before it embarks on its first road trip to drill for rock samples, NASA said Friday. It is due to travel a short 400-meter drive to a site named "Glenelg." The area includes three types of terrain, making it an ideal first drilling target.

The rover is about to "head out onto the open road," lead mission scientist John Grotzinger told reporters on Friday. "That first drilling will be a huge moment in the history of Mars exploration," Grotzinger said.

The six-wheeled Curiosity landed in the large Gale Crater near Mars' equator on August 6. During its two-year quest the nuclear-powered robotic science lab will search for organic materials and other chemistry which are widely considered the key to life.

Before embarking on its trip on the open road, Curiosity must "exercise" each of its four steerable wheels as part of a full instrument test. Early next week it will also test-fire its powerful laser to pulverize a bit of bedrock situated near the rover's landing site.

All tests are expected to be completed by the end of next week. Depending on their success it will then set out for Glenelg on a journey which scientists say will take roughly one month.

Curiosity will then begin a more perilous trek to the base of Mount Sharp, a mound of layered rock three kilometers high and the rover's primary target. The seven-kilometer journey is expected to take several months.

"Sometime toward the end of the calendar year, roughly, I would guess then we would turn our sights toward the trek to Mount Sharp," Grotzinger said.

Curiosity's ambitious mission is the most expensive and technically advanced ever sent from Earth to Mars.

ccp/lw (dpa, AFP)