The Mars Science Laboratory, a sophisticated rover designed to assess conditions for life on Mars, was moved to its Cape Canaveral, Fla., launch pad on Thursday and hoisted atop an Atlas 5 rocket in preparation for liftoff Thanksgiving weekend.
The $2.5 billion spacecraft, nicknamed Curiosity, is expected to arrive at the Red Planet in August 2012. Its landing site is Gale Crater, a large impact crater with a 3-mile high mountain rising from its floor.
The nuclear-powered wheeled robot is twice as big and three times heavier than the Spirit and Opportunity solar-powered rovers (only one of which is still working after nearly eight years on Mars — not bad, considering they were only designed to last three months).
Curiosity is designed to spend one Martian year — 687 Earth days — analyzing soil and rocks on Gale Crater for signs of organics, among other studies. Launch is scheduled for Nov. 25 at 10:25 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Image: Technicians prepare to lift the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft, enclosed in an Atlas V rocket's payload fairing, before transportation to the launch pad. Credit: NASA