An unmanned Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, sending the nuclear-powered craft on an 8.5-month, 354 million-mile journey to the red planet.
"It has phoned home, and it's on the way to Mars," said NASA launch commentator George Diller, after tracking stations successfully picked up the probe's signal.
If all goes well, the probe's next stop will be on Aug. 6 when it is lowered into a 96-mile wide impact basin called Gale Crater. Over the next two years, Mars Science Lab, nicknamed "Curiosity," will explore the crater's walls and a three-mile high mountain of rock rising from the crater floor. Scientists don't know how the mound formed, but believe it's the buildup of layered sediment, much like the layers of rock in the Grand Canyon. The goal of the mission, which is expected to last two years, is to determine if Gale Crater has or ever had the right conditions and ingredients for life.
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Image: The Atlas V rocket sends MSL Curiosity high into the atmosphere shortly after launch. Credit: NASA