The Mars rover Curiosity is preparing to roll again after it completes its health checkups this week, project managers said Wednesday.
Since landing in an ancient crater near the Martian equator Aug. 5, the car-size rover has trekked more than the length of a football field, leaving wheel tracks in the soil that could be spied from space.
The most high-tech rover sent to the red planet, it spent the past month testing its instruments before embarking on a mission to examine whether the environment could have been hospitable to microbial life.
Mission manager Jennifer Trosper said the six-wheel Curiosity has "performed almost flawlessly" so far.
It still has to do a final check of its robotic arm and aim its camera to track one of Mars' moons, Phobos, passing in front of the sun before hitting the road Friday night.
"The plan is to drive, drive, drive," said Trosper of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $2.5 billion mission.
Curiosity is headed toward a spot called Glenelg where three types of terrain meet. Along the way, it will select rocks to study up close and scoop up soil. So far, the rover has used its laser to zap at rocks several feet away. Within a month or so, it plans to use its robotic arm to drill into rocks.
The rover's ultimate destination is Mount Sharp, a mountain rising from the crater floor, but it was not expected to journey there until the end of the year. From orbit, the base appeared to contain signs of past water, providing a starting point to search for the chemical building blocks of life.
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More information: Mission page: www.nasa.gov/msl