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Mars rover takes a test drive
Curiosity rover's wheel tracks on the surface of Mars. Picture: JPL mission engineer Allen Chen @Twitter/NASA/AP

The NASA rover Curiosity has made its first test drive on the ancient soil of Mars.

"Wheel tracks on Mars," Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Allen Chen tweeted along with an image sent from one of the rover's cameras. "The EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) team is finally done. Congrats to the mobility and surface teams!"

The rover moved forward about 4.57 metres, rotated to a right angle and reversed a short distance.

The drive was successful and means the rover's mobility system is fully functional, lead rover planner Matt Heverly told a JPL press conference.

"We're very excited to have this kind of milestone behind us," Heverly said. "We see that the system is performing very well and we're in a great place to do some science."

Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars exploration program, announced that Curiosity's touchdown site has been named Bradbury Landing in honour of The Martian Chronicles author Ray Bradbury, who would have been 92 on Wednesday. Bradbury, an inspiration to many on the Curiosity team, died in June.

The test drive is part of a health checkup the rover has been undergoing since arriving on August 5. Eventually, the rover could roam hundreds of feet a day over the ancient crater where it landed.

Meanwhile, researchers discovered a damaged wind sensor while checking out instruments that Curiosity will use to check the Martian weather and soil.

The cause of the damage wasn't known, but one possibility is that pebbles thrown up by Curiosity's descent fell onto the sensor's delicate, exposed circuit boards and broke some wires, said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity.

A second sensor is operating and should do the job, but Vasavada said scientists may "have to work a little harder" to determine wind speed and direction, which are important factors that can determine when the rover is allowed to move.

"But we think we can work around that," he added.

Scientists also continued to test and calibrate Curiosity's 2.1-metre-long arm and its extensive tool kit - which includes a drill, a scoop, a spectrometer and a camera - in preparation for collecting its first soil samples and attempting to learn whether the Martian environment was favourable for microbial life.