The Mars rover Curiosity could go for its first, short test drive in about a week, once scientists finish checking out its instruments, controllers said Tuesday.
The mobile science lab touched down on Mars early on August 6 and has been beaming back images of the surface of Gale Crater ever since. But it hasn't yet moved from its landing site as controllers make sure its systems operate properly.
Mission manager Michael Watkins said NASA hopes to change that by the rover's 15th full day on Mars, "assuming everything goes well in between now and then." Controllers plan to make sure Curiosity's steering gear works properly on 13, then take it out for a drive of "a couple meters, then maybe turn and back up," he said.
Curiosity has been getting an upgrade of its control software over the past few days -- a process NASA dubbed a "brain transplant."
Ashwin Vasavada, a Curiosity project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told reporters that controllers "couldn't be happier with the success of the mission so far."
The rover's primary target is Mount Sharp, a peak about 8 kilometers (5 miles) away. But moving about a football field a day, with lengthy stops, it could take nearly a year to reach the slopes at the base of the mountain.
"Part of understanding Mount Sharp is understanding the context around it and some of the features that have formed on the plains where we're at," Vasavada said. Each stop to check out the features around the peak could involve "a few weeks of activity" at a time, he said.
The mountain is composed of layers of rock that have built up over time. Using its science tools, Curiosity will test for organic molecules, which would indicate the planet could have hosted life at one time.