The day after Thanksgiving, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), NASA's car-sized, nuclear-powered rover called Curiosity, will blast off for a nine-month journey to the Red Planet.
When it lands next August, after traveling 354 million-miles, the MSL will spend nearly two years analyzing rock samples and exploring the Martian surface for signs that microbial life may have once existed.
"This is a Mars scientist's dream machine," Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, according to AFP. "This is the most capable scientific explorer we have ever sent out...We are super excited."
According to NASA, Curiosity is about twice as long and five times as heavy as the Opportunity and Spirit, the twin Mars rovers that NASA launched in 2003. But unlike the Opportunity and Spirit, the Curiosity is equipped with tools to gather and analyze samples from the Martian surface and ground.
The six-wheeled craft will be able to maneuver over obstacles that are more than two-feet high and travel about 600 feet per day. The Spirit and Opportunity were solar-powered, but Curiosity runs on a plutonium-powered battery.
"It requires a fancy power supply in order to do the job," Dr. Pam Conrad, deputy principal investigator for Mars Science Laboratory said in a statement. "This enables us to make measurements all day, every day, at night, in the winter."
The Mars Science Laboratory, which Reuters reports cost $2.5 billion, is currently in a payload fairing atop an Atlas V rocket. Although the launch is scheduled for November 25 at 10:21 a.m. EST, weather or other factors could delay it, so the launch window extends to December 18.
It will land in unprecedented fashion, first using a braking heat shield, then high-speed parachute and finally a rocket-powered "sky crane" to safely deposit the rover on the martian surface. "It is clearly not risk-free," says Peter Theisinger, mission chief of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
A NASA video, available above, shows a simulation of the rover landing and working on Mars.
The rover will land near the base of a 3-mile high mountain inside the Gale crater.
"Gale gives us a superb opportunity to test multiple potentially habitable environments and the context to understand a very long record of early environmental evolution of the planet," John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory said in a statement. "The portion of the crater where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. Layers at the base of the mountain contain clays and sulfates, both known to form in water."
NASA has since lost contact with the Spirit, but the Opportunity is continuing to study while spending the winter on the rim of Endeavour Crater.
LOOK: Pictures of the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity Rover:
This artist's concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Curiosity is being tested in preparation for launch in the fall of 2011. In this picture, the rover examines a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of the rover's arm, which extends about 2 meters (7 feet). Two instruments on the arm can study rocks up close. Also, a drill can collect sample material from inside of rocks and a scoop can pick up samples of soil. The arm can sieve the samples and deliver fine powder to instruments inside the rover for thorough analysis. (NASA)
Technicians at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, put the instrument mast and science boom on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, known as Curiosity, through a series of deployment tests.
This photograph of the NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, was taken during testing on June 3, 2011 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Curiosity is being tested in preparation for launch in the fall of 2011. In this picture, the mast, or rover's "head," rises to about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) above ground level, about as tall as a basketball player. This mast supports two remote-sensing instruments: the Mast Camera, or "eyes," for stereo color viewing of surrounding terrain and material collected by the arm; and, the ChemCam instrument, which is a laser that vaporizes material from rocks up to about 9 meters (30 feet) away and determines what elements the rocks are made of. (NASA)
This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires laser pulses at a target and views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify chemical elements. The laser is actually in an invisible infrared wavelength, but is shown here as visible red light for purposes of illustration. (NASA)
The payload fairing containing MSL rolls out of the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. (NASA)
The payload fairing containing NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is attached to the Atlas V rocket inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (NASA)