LOS ANGELES (AFP) - NASA’s Curiosity rover has begun its first major drive across the surface of Mars, handling “beautifully” as it prepares to start some serious scientific work, the US space agency said Wednesday.

The $2.5 billion craft - which landed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet on August 6 - plans to drive a quarter-mile (400 meters) east, to a spot where it may use its drill for the first time, to bore into the Martian rock. The rover trundled about 52 feet (16 meters) Tuesday, its third drive and longer than its first two combined - positioning it to examine an area scoured by exhaust from the spacecraft engines that helped lower it to the ground.  It is pausing for about a day before heading off again on its eastwards trek, NASA said in a written update. “This drive really begins our journey toward the first major driving destination, Glenelg,” said mission manager Arthur Amador of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  “It’s nice to see some Martian soil on our wheels ... The drive went beautifully, just as our rover planners designed it,” he added.

Glenelg is a location where three types of terrain intersect, and NASA experts hope it will provide a first rock target for drilling and analysis.