Next-generation rover headed to Mars

Next-generation rover headed to Mars

NASA's next generation Mars rover was on its way to the Red Planet on Saturday after blasting off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, dpa reported.

The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft soared into the grey skies above the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 1502 GMT atop an Atlas V rocket. A spotty cloud cover prompted some concern, but did not hinder the launch.

"Science fiction is now science fact, we're flying to Mars," NASA Mars director Doug McCuistion said after the launch. "Let's get it on the ground and see what we find."

The Mars Science Laboratory mission is headed on a flight of more than eight months to Mars.

Once it reaches Earth's nearest planetary neighbour, the craft will deploy a high-tech 900-kilogramme rover, known as Curiosity, to follow up on confirmations of water on Mars by past rovers and determine if areas habitable to life ever existed on the planet.

The rover is the "most complex object ever placed on the surface of another planet" and will conduct a nearly two-year mission to Mars, McCuistion had told journalists ahead of the mission.

The 2.5-billion-dollar Mars Science Laboratory mission will spend at least one Martian year - or nearly two Earth years - studying Mars' Gale crater in a bid to extend the search for water to the search for other evidence of possible life on the planet.

"I think this mission will be a great one. It is an important next step in NASA's goal to detect life in the universe," said scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology.

He stressed that the goal was not to find life itself but to look for clues of ancient habitable environments.

Armed with two cameras on a mast, Curiosity can take 3D and panoramic images, while a laser can be shot into rocks to determine their chemical elements. The rover has a two-metre-long robotic arm to examine its surroundings more closely, and a drill allowing it to take samples from inside rocks.

Like its predecessors, a series of instruments inside the rover will allow it to analyze the composition of the samples.

The Gale crater, where Curiosity will conduct its mission, is nearly 154 kilometres in diameter and features a mountain that rises some 5 kilometres above the surface. The massive mountain includes layers of rock strata that will provide a virtual history of Mars' geological past.

The area has already been studied extensively from orbiting spacecraft, giving scientists hope that it will provide clues to a probable wet Martian past. The region contains clay and sulfate-rich areas, which could hold organic compounds necessary for life.

Curiosity builds on the work of past rovers, including the Opportunity rover, one of a pair of water-hunting twin rovers that lasted years beyond their original missions. Opportunity began a new phase of its mission earlier this year, exploring the Endeavour crater.

NASA eventually hopes to send a manned mission to Mars.

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