NASA's next Mars rover has been placed atop the rocket that will launch it toward the Red Planet three weeks from now, officials announced today (Nov. 3).
Technicians hoisted the car-size Curiosity rover — the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission — atop its Atlas 5 rocket early Thursday morning at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Rocket and rover are slated to blast off Nov. 25.
Curiosity had been at a servicing facility at NASA's nearby Kennedy Space Center. In Thursday's predawn hours, a heavy-duty transporter vehicle rolled the rover, encapsulated in its payload fairing, to Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 41, where the Atlas 5 awaited.
Curiosity should arrive at Mars in August 2012. It will touch down at a huge crater called Gale after an unprecedented landing that employs parachutes and a rocket-powered "sky crane" that will lower the heavy rover down to the surface on cables.
The rover will then explore Gale and the strange 3-mile-high (5-kilometer) mountain that rises from its center, looking for any clues that the Red Planet is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.
The rover has 10 science instruments to help it assess Mars' past and present habitability, including gear that could detect organic compounds, the building blocks of life as we know it.
Curiosity's mission is slated to last about two Earth years, but it wouldn't be a shock if the robot outlasted its warranty. NASA's Opportunity rover, after all, is still chugging around Mars, nearly eight years after it landed on the Red Planet.