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Mars rover mission ‘Curiosity’ blasts off from cape.
By Scott Powers, Orlando Sentinel

Man’s curiosity about Mars began its next probe Saturday morning as NASA’s latest and biggest Mars mission yet — with the mobile science laboratory called “Curiosity” — blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for its nine month trip to the red planet.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory launched successfully on top of an Atlas V rocket into partly-cloudy skies above Kennedy at 10:02 a.m.. From there, after a partial orbit around Earth, the space craft containing the laboratory will travel 354 million miles and land on Mars Aug. 5, 2012.

If it makes it, and trips to Mars are never a sure thing, the laboratory — contained within the Jeep Wrangler-sized Mars vehicle called Curiosity — will give scientists their best tools yet to find evidence of water, oxygen and methane, key ingredients to life.

Like Spirit and Opportunity, the two smaller rovers sent to Mars in 2004, Curiosity is designed to investigate the Martian surface for evidence that the planet ever could have supported life.

But Curiosity is a rover on steroids.

Ten feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall at the top of its mast, the nuclear-powered vehicle is equipped with six-wheel drive that allows it to run over obstacles as tall as 2 feet. And Curiosity sports a top-mounted laser that can zap rocks from 23 feet away to see what chemicals pop from the spark.

"It’s not your father’s rover," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars program. "It’s truly … the largest and most complex piece of equipment ever placed on the surface of another planet."

Curiosity will land in Mars’ Gale Crater, which scientists already have determined is one of the best places to look for such things.

Continue reading at Chicago Tribune.