Scientists are preparing to send the Mars rover Curiosity on its first test drive on the planet.

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory turned four of the rover's six wheels this week to test the steering. Project manager Mike Watkins says that on Wednesday the rover will roll about 3 metres, turn right and then back up into a new parking place.

It's part of a health checkup for the rover, which eventually could roam dozens of meters a day over the ancient crater where it landed Aug. 5.

Engineers continue to check its instruments. The U.S. space agency says a wind sensor was damaged on or after landing, but a second is working perfectly.

Curiosity extends robot arm for first time

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California say the rover Curiosity flexed its robotic arm Monday for the first time since before its November launch.

They say they'll now spend weeks testing and calibrating the 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

On Monday engineers unfurled the arm, extended it forward using all five of its joints, then stowed it again.

The test is part of a full health checkup Curiosity has been undergoing since landing in an ancient crater on the red planet Aug. 5.

More missions to Mars in 2016

NASA agency decided Monday to launch a relatively low-cost robotic lander in 2016 to check out what makes the Martian core so different from Earth's.

NASA's Discovery program picked a project called Insight over missions to a Saturn moon and a comet, drawing complaints from scientists who study other places in our solar system that NASA is too focused on Mars.

All three proposed missions were good, but the Mars one showed the best chance of making it within budget and on schedule, said NASA sciences chief John Grunsfeld. The missions cost no more than $425 million.

The Insight mission includes two instruments, one French and one German, that would examine the geology of Mars in depth. It would explore the core's size, composition, temperature and wobble.

The interior of Mars is a mystery. It has no magnetic field, and scientists aren't sure if the core is solid or liquid or even has frequent quakes like Earth.

"What kind of Mars quakes are there? How big is the core of Mars? Does it have remnants of a molten core like the Earth does?" asked Discovery program chief Lindley Johnson.

"Too much emphasis on Mars in our current plans for planetary exploration...why more Mars?"—Carolyn Porco, scientist

Geologists have been asking for this type of crucial information for decades, said H. Jay Melosh of Purdue University, who said it was about time a project like this was approved.

The mission will be run by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. The California lab is basking in the success of the $2.5 billion US Mars Curiosity rover, which is starting to explore the planet's surface after a daring landing this month. Earlier this year, NASA pulled out of two Mars missions with the European Space Agency because it didn't have the $1.4 billion for the proposed 2016 and 2018 mission.

NASA is still working on another possible Mars mission to replace the canceled ones with a decision later this month.

That's just "too much emphasis on Mars in our current plans for planetary exploration," said Carolyn Porco, a prominent scientist who studies Saturn and its moons. "Most of the solar system resides beyond the orbits of the asteroids. There is more to learn there about general planetary processes than on Mars … Why more Mars?"

Mars beat out missions to explore Saturn's moon Titan and its odd methane oceans and a mission to land on a comet as it nears the sun. Opponents of more Mars missions say that NASA hasn't approved missions to the other outer planets or a comet since a Pluto mission was picked in 2001.