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NASA’s new Mars rover makes its first trip down a dusty red path, covering 21 feet.

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NASA's new Mars rover makes its first trip down a dusty red path, covering 21 feet.

 

This week, NASA’s newest Mars rover took to the dusty red road for its first test drive, clocking 21 feet on the odometer.

The Perseverance rover left its landing spot on Mars on Thursday, two weeks after landing to look for signs of past life.

The roundabout, back-and-forth drive took just 33 minutes and went so well that the six-wheeled rover was scheduled to drive again on Friday and Saturday.

The NASA engineer who plotted the road, Rich Rieber, said, “This is really the start of our journey here.” “Like the Odyssey, there will be adventures along the way, hopefully no Cyclops, and I’m sure there will be plenty of stories written about it.”

Perseverance advanced 13 feet (4 meters) in its first roll, then turned 150 degrees left and backed up 8 feet (2.5 meters). NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, posted pictures of its tracks over and around tiny rocks during a news conference on Friday.

Engineer Anais Zarifian said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see wheel tracks, and I’ve seen a lot of them.”

Many of Perseverance’s systems are still being tested by flight controllers. So far, everything seems to be in order. For the first time on Tuesday, the rover’s 7-foot (2-meter) robot arm flexed its muscles.
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Before it can head to an ancient river delta to gather rocks for eventual return to Earth, the car-size rover must remove its so-called defensive “belly pan” and release an experimental helicopter named Ingenuity.

Perseverance landed on the edge of a possible helicopter landing strip, which turned out to be a fine, flat spot, according to Rieber. So the idea is to drive away from this landing strip, ditch the pan, and then return for Ingenuity’s much-awaited test flight. By late spring, all of this should be completed.

Scientists are debating whether to follow the easier path to the nearby delta or a potentially more difficult route that contains intriguing relics from a period when the area was once flooded 3 billion to 4 billion years ago.

On Feb. 18, Perseverance, NASA’s largest and most complex rover to date, became the ninth U.S. spacecraft to successfully land on Mars. In a few months, China hopes to land its smaller rover, which is currently circling Mars.

Meanwhile, NASA scientists revealed on Friday that Perseverance’s touchdown site would be named after the late science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, who grew up near JPL in Pasadena. She was one of the first African Americans to be recognized as a science fiction author in the mainstream. “Bloodchild and Other Stories” and “Parable of the Sower” were among her works.

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