NASA is on track to move the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover for the first time on the red planet’s surface around the middle of next week, according to controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California.

Preparations for the move come midway through Sol 9 on Mars (Aug. 14), as the MSL team nears the halfway point in the lengthy process of checking out and commissioning the rover’s 10 major science instruments and other avionics and mechanical systems.

Toward the end of the initial instrument checkout phase, engineers will test the rover’s steering actuation system. This evaluation of the actuators on four of the vehicle’s six wheels is scheduled for Sol 13, and paves the way for the first planned movement on Sol 15.

“It will just be a short drive — a few meters,” says JPL MSL mission manager Michael Watkins. The initial maneuver will include a drive forward, followed by a turn and then backing up. “We want to turn in an area that we can see,” he says.

A new flight software load (version 10.0) optimized for surface operations was successfully uploaded between Aug. 10 and Aug. 13. The new load includes improved image processing for obstacles and other potential hazards, which will aid the rover’s driving autonomy, as well as software for controlling the tools at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm. Although described earlier by NASA as a “brain transplant,” MSL avionics chief engineer Jim Donaldson says, “I prefer to think of it as an intellectual upgrade.”

Planning for the route that Curiosity will take as it searches for signs of former life on Mars is ongoing. The science team has several candidates in mind, including an exposed area of multiple sediments and rock types around 8 km from the rover. The ultimate target is a zone of exposed clays and sulfite-bearing areas on the lower slopes of Mt. Sharp, the central feature dominating Gale Crater, in which Curiosity landed on Aug. 5.

Although the target area is only a few kilometers away, the JPL team expects it to take around one year to navigate through dunes and around obstacles to make it “a few 100 meters up in elevation” on the slopes of the 5.5-km tall mountain, according to MSL deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada. Curiosity is expected to drive “something like a football field a day” and will “have to find a gap in the dune field to give us safe passage.” There will also be “some challenges that will slow us down,” he adds.