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.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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.