11/17/2011 09:27 am ET

Mars Rover Curiosity: NASA Prepares For Launch Of Mars Science Laboratory (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

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.

From USA Today::

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: