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Curiosity parks to test robotic arm

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Curiosity rover has temporarily halted its journey across the surface of Mars as it tests the tools on its robotic arm, the U.S. space agency said Thursday.

The US$2.5 billion craft — which landed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet on Aug. 6 — has covered more than a football field's distance since it began trundling eastward.

That's about a quarter of the distance to the first major destination for scientific testing — called Glenelg.

But for the next week or so, the rover will stay put, giving technicians a chance to put the seven-foot (2.1-meter) robotic arm through “a range of motions and placing it at important 'teach points' that were established during Earth testing,” lead systems engineer Daniel Limonadi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement.

That will help them figure out how the arm is functioning after the long space voyage and in the different gravity and temperatures on Mars.

“This really will get us ready to do good science,” Mike Watkins, head of the mission at the JPL in Pasadena, said during a telephone press conference.

The arm and the soil sampling system are the last pieces of the massive rover to be put through testing, Watkins added.

“One thing we are not quite ready to do yet and need to practice more,” he continued, “is scooping into the soil and putting the sample into the rover.”

That “is the last thing to do to fully certify all the capabilities of the rover,” he said.

At that point, Curiosity will continue the rest of its journey towards Glenelg, located at an intersection of three types of terrain, where NASA experts hope to find a first rock target for drilling and analysis.

It will be a month or so before the rover is in place and ready to take samples, Watkins said, adding that Curiosity will scoop first, because “scooping is easier than drilling.”

That scooping may come during another stop on the way to Glenelg, Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist, explained during the press conference.

The team will be looking either for “a fine grain rock for testing instruments that measure chemistry,” she said, or “loose scoopable material” — whichever comes first.

After Glenelg, Curiosity will continue on to its ultimate destination, the slopes of nearby Mount Sharp.

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