The NASA Mars rover Curiosity is preparing for its first laser target practice — zapping a Martian rock three metres away.

Since landing in an ancient crater Aug. 5, the car-size Curiosity has been getting a full health checkup.

Scientists said yesterday they have chosen a generic-looking rock near the landing site to aim the laser at and burn a small hole. The laser is just one of several tools Curiosity has in its arsenal.


Curiosity is getting ready to use its laser for the first time. ((AP Photo/NASA) )

Engineers next week plan to command Curiosity to turn its wheels side-to-side and then take its first short drive that will involve rolling forward about a metre, turning 90 degrees and then going in reverse.

After the checkups are done, the rover will head about 400 metres east to a spot where three different types of terrain converge, a drive that will take about a month. By year's end, it will start its trek toward a mountain rising from the crater floor.

On Friday, the rover beamed back the first detailed image of the foothills of Mount Sharp, its eventual destination during its two-year mission on Mars.

Speaking from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger called it a "thrilling image."

"There's just a rich diversity over there," he said. "There are hills the size of multi-storey buildings [at the lower reaches of Mount Sharp]. It's a spectacular terrain and that's where we're going be headed one day."

Last week, NASA released the first colour panoramic photograph of the Mars terrain taken by Curiosity.

Curiosity is currently about seven kilometres away from the base of the mound, inside Gale Crater, where it landed on Aug. 6. Since then, NASA's engineering team has been running tests to ensure the rover's tools are working properly.

All of the instruments have so far checked out, Grotzinger said.

If everything continues to go according to plan, the rover will begin climbing Mount Sharp in six months, where scientists will examine what they believe are hydrated minerals, based on orbiter observations.

NASA hopes the $2.6-billion US project will help unlock the mystery of whether life ever existed or could be sustained on the red planet.