Update 3:21 p.m.:

On Space Day, which was officially declared by California Gov. Jerry Brown, the NASA news conference started not with an update on the Mars rover, but footage of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury reciting his poem, “If only we had taller been.”

On what today would have been Bradbury’s 92nd birthday, said Michael Meyer, NASA’s lead scientists for the Mars Exploration Program, “In his honor, we declared the place that Curiosity touched down to be forever known as Bradbury Landing.” Meyer’s announcement was followed by applause for Bradbury, as requested by Pete Theisinger, Curiosity’s project manager.

“Everything has been going extremely well,” Theisinger said, describing himself as a “very smiley project manager.”

After the announcement, Theisinger said the plan, as of now, is for a scoop sample to be scheduled for September and drilling in November. The JPL team, said Theisinger, has “an extremely well-behaved flight system on Mars.”

Theisinger then passed it to Lead Rover driver Matt Heverly. “I’m pleased to report that Curiosity had her first, successful drive on Mars,” said Heverly to applause. “We have a fully functioning mobility system on our rover.”

Heverly’s announcement was accompanied by the release of a new image from the rover showing where it had been vs. where it was now. Heverly also presented an animated graphic showing the travel path of the rover, which included movement forward, around and then backward.

“Everything looks perfectly nominal,” Heverly continued. “We’re in a great place to do some science.”

The drive started about 7 a.m. Pacific time, taking about 16 minutes in total, with the rover moving roughly 4 or 5 meters in that time. Subsequent drives are expected to be as long as 10 meters, eventually lasting as long as 100 meters per Mars day, or Sol.

Curiosity team project scientist Joy Crisp provided details on the progress of the rover in terms of its findings and where it’s scheduled to go in the coming days and weeks. “We’ve got several day, all-day, all-night weather readings,” Crisp said. “We’re about to go into this intermission period, in which we have three major activities going on in this period.” This includes two days of SAM atmospheric check-outs and the taking of long-range 3D images.

After the intermission, the rover team plans to drive Curiosity to Glenelg, where they plan to study an outcropping there. After Glenelg comes travel to Mount Sharp, a longer drive with several stops scheduled along the way. “That’s going to take several months before we get to that point,” Crisp said.

“The team is tremendously excited, everything’s working,” concluded Meyer in answer to the final question from the audience. “The hard part is kind of dampening the excitement a little bit so that people get enough rest so they are in it for the long haul.”

“We are 16 days into a two-year mission,” Theisinger said, taking on a note of caution. “We haven’t put the arm on the ground yet. We haven’t exercised the sample-gathering capability.”

“As wonderful as it is,” he continued, “we’ve still only checked off two of the level-one requirement boxes: launch on time; land on Mars. ... But, as Michael said, so far it has been wonderful.”

Original Post:

Far from a casual romp through the desert, the Mars Curiosity rover is preparing to go for its first drive in the depths of Gale crater.

Ready to Roll: See me #wigglewigglewiggle my rear right wheel to prepare for my 1st drive on Mars [GIF] 1.usa.gov/PBdCLl

— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) August 21, 2012

NASA will hold a news conference at 11:30 a.m. PT/2:30 p.m. ET to provide details on the rover’s first trip since its landing. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory team tested the rover’s four wheels Tuesday, rotating them in place. Meanwhile, the team planned, late Tuesday night, to send the first commands for the inaugural drive.

NASA posted this animated gif to show the testing of the right rear wheel:

Curiosity’s movement will provide the opportunity for another slew of photographs and data as it continues to capture high-resolution images of the Martian surface.

On Sunday, Curiosity used its onboard laser for the first time.

View Photo Gallery: NASA’s rover Curiosity is rolling about deep in a Martian crater after a picture-perfect descent and landing, beginning what promises to be one of the most ambitious planetary missions in history.

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