Life Science Mars rover hits the red road
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Mars rover hits the red road

This photo made available by NASA was taken during the first drive of the Perseverance rover on Mars. Photo: AAP
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NASA’s newest Mars rover hit the dusty red road this week, putting 6.4 metres on the odometer in its first test drive.

The Perseverance rover ventured from its landing position on Thursday (US time) two weeks after setting down on the red planet to seek signs of past life.

The roundabout, back and forth drive lasted just 33 minutes and went so well that more driving was on tap on Friday and Saturday for the the six-wheeled rover.

“This is really the start of our journey here,” said Rich Rieber, the NASA engineer who plotted the route.

“This is going to be like the Odyssey, adventures along the way, hopefully no Cyclops, and I’m sure there will be stories aplenty written about it.”

In its first drive, Perseverance went forward four metres, took a 150-degree left turn, then backed up 2.5 metres. During a news conference on Friday (local time), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, shared photos of its tracks over and around small rocks.

Flight controllers are still checking all of Perseverance’s systems. So far, everything is looking good. The rover’s 2m robot arm, for instance, flexed its muscles for the first time on Tuesday.

Before the car-size rover can head for an ancient river delta to collect rocks for eventual return to earth, it must drop its so-called protective “belly pan” and release an experimental helicopter named Ingenuity.

As it turns out, Perseverance landed right on the edge of a potential helicopter landing strip – a nice, flat spot, according to Rieber. So the plan is to drive out of this landing strip, ditch the pan, then return for Ingenuity’s eagerly awaited test flight. All this should be accomplished before midyear.

Scientists are debating whether to take the smoother route to get to the nearby delta or a possibly tougher way with intriguing remnants from that once-watery time three billion to four billion years ago.

Perseverance – NASA’s biggest and most elaborate rover yet – became the ninth US spacecraft to successfully land on Mars on February 18. China hopes to land its smaller rover – currently orbiting the red planet – in another few months.

-AAP