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Take the rover for a spin around a virtual Mars crater

Take the controls of the Curiosity rover and zoom around a virtual version of the Gale Crater on Mars.

Virtual Mars rover
You can do doughnuts, but you can't pop a wheelie.
Screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

We've been exploring ways to immerse yourself in Mars without having to sign up for an experimental one-way space trip. You can play with a photo panorama, but you can also put yourself in Curiosity's shoes and take the rover for a crater ride.

NASA's Explore Mars: Free Drive online experience puts you in command of the rover in a virtual version of the Gale Crater on Mars.

It's fun to watch the rover's wheels react to the landscape. I made mine do doughnuts. There are plenty of points of interest available for exploration, including the landing site, a series of fractures, a canyon, sand dunes, and a phyllosilicate trough.

At one point, I thought I had discovered life on Mars, but it turned out it was just my cat standing in front of the screen. I would suggest setting your kids at the controls and telling them to go look for Waldo.

Explore Mars is in beta, but I didn't have any issues with using it other than waiting for the terrain to load a few times.

It's easy to let the minutes drain by as you race around the Gale Crater, getting just a smidgeon of an idea of what life is like for Curiosity so far away from home.