CAPE CANAVERAL — The world's biggest extraterrestrial explorer, NASA's Curiosity rover, rocketed toward Mars on Saturday on a search for evidence that the red planet might once have been home to life.
It will take 8 ½ months for Curiosity to reach Mars following a journey of 354 million miles.
An unmanned Atlas V rocket hoisted the rover, officially known as Mars Science Laboratory, into a cloudy, late-morning sky. A Mars frenzy gripped the launch site, with more than 13,000 people jamming the space center for NASA's first launch to Earth's next-door neighbor in four years, and the first send-off of a Martian rover in eight years. The 1-ton Curiosity — 10 feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall at its mast — is a mobile, nuclear-powered laboratory holding 10 science instruments that will sample Martian soil and rocks.
NASA's Mars exploration program director Doug McCuistion called it "the monster truck of Mars."
"It's an enormous mission. It's equivalent of three missions, frankly, and quite an undertaking," said an ecstatic McCuistion. "Science fiction is now science fact. We're flying to Mars. We'll get it on the ground and see what we find."
The primary goal of the $2.5 billion mission is to see whether cold, dry, barren Mars might have been hospitable for microbial life once upon a time — or might even still be conducive to life now. No actual life detectors are on board; rather, the instruments will hunt for organic compounds. Curiosity's 7-foot arm has a jackhammer on the end to drill into the Martian red rock, and the 7-foot mast on the rover is topped with high-definition and laser cameras. No previous Martian rover has been so sophisticated or capable.