Safely on Mars, NASA rover Curiosity gets busy

Robotic rover sends back its first high-resolution images of Martian crater

Now that NASA's rover Curiosity has safely landed on Mars, it's time for the robot to get to work.

And that's exactly what NASA engineers say is happening today.

"The surface mission of Curiosity has now begun," Michael Watkins, a mission systems manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during a news conference today. "For a long time, we knew we had to get through some big events. Launch was a big one for us and landing was a big one for us. We have ended one phase of the mission..., but another part has just begun."

Now, he said, NASA can focus what's most important - exploration.

"It's really the fundamental reason of the rover," said Watkins. "We're just starting that mission.... This is our new home, at least for a while. We need to explore it and take a look around."

Curiosity is tasked with a two-year mission designed to gather evidence that Mars is or has been capable of supporting life, probably in microbial form.

For the first day or so, NASA engineers will be working with the rover to check out its systems and make sure nothing was damaged or altered during its 350-million-mile journey through space or during its landing. Watkins said one of the first things researchers will do is deploy a small antennae on the rover that should enable it to communicate directly with Earth - without any relay assistance from a Mars orbiter.

Curiosity descending
The NASA rover Curiosity descending under its 51-foot-parachute to the Martian surface. (Image: NASA)

In a day or two, the rover will deploy its mast, which should enable Curiosity to take pictures of its surroundings.

It could take weeks to check all of Curiosity's instruments, according to NASA. That means the rover may not begin actually moving through the crater until September.

Miguel San Martin, a chief engineer on the Curiosity team, noted that engineers will be working to verify the coordinates of the rover's landing site.

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