A nearly 25-foot long test drive of the rover Curiosity Wednesday left wheel tracks on a few feet of the planet's rocky surface as mission engineers prepared for longer journeys that might reveal whether life could exist on Mars.
The rover, which landed on Mars Aug. 5, went forward about 15 feet, rotated 120 degrees, then reversed about 8 feet. It ended up about 20 feet from its landing site -- named Bradbury Landing in honor of author Ray Bradbury -- in Gale crater.
"Wheel tracks on Mars,'' Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Allen Chen tweeted. "The EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) team is finally done. Congrats to the mobility and surface teams!''
Chen also tweeted an image of the tracks.
The wheel marks are not far from scour marks left by the rover landing craft's thrusters. The thruster marks can be seen to the left and right of the wheel tracks in a 360-degree panorama image pieced together from Curiosity's snapshots.
On Tuesday, engineers conducted a "wheel wiggle" test to determine whether the rover's steering works properly. The right rear wheel -- made of aluminum -- was turned side-to-side in a test captured on a camera atop the rover.
Engineers also have tested Curiosity's robotic arm and laser, used to zap rocks. The 7-foot arm is equipped with a serious tool kit -- a drill, scoop, spectrometer and camera -- that will be used to collect soil samples.
Most of the rover's first 2 1/2 weeks on Mars involved testing its many components. During the tests, engineers discovered damage to a wind sensor.
The damage might have occurred when thrusters kicked up pebbles during Curiosity's landing in a crater. A second sensor should provide enough information for scientists.