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NASA launches rover to Mars
Two-year mission to probe rocks, soil for life ingredients

Cape Canaveral, November 26
An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida today, launching a $2.5 billion nuclear-powered NASA rover toward Mars to look for life habitats there.

The 20-story-tall booster built by United Launch Alliance lifted off from its seaside launch pad soaring through partly cloudy skies as it headed into space to send NASA's Mars Science Laboratory on a 556 million km, nearly nine-month journey to the 'Red Planet'.

"Mars Science Lab is on its way to Mars," NASA launch commentator George Diller said as the spacecraft separated from the rocket.

The car-sized rover is expected to touch down on August 6, 2012, to begin two years of detailed analysis of a 154-km wide impact basin near the Martian equator called Gale Crater.

The mission's goal is to determine if Mars has or ever had environments to support life. It is the first astrobiology mission to Mars since the 1970s-era Viking probes.

Scientists chose the landing area because it has a 4.8-km high mountain of what appears from orbital imagery and mineral analysis to be layers of rock piled up like the Grand Canyon, each layer testifying to a different period in Mars' history.

The rover, nicknamed Curiosity, has 17 cameras and 10 science instruments, including chemistry labs, to identify elements in soil and rock samples to be dug up by the probe's drill-tipped robotic arm.

Curiosity is powered by heat from the radioactive decay of plutonium. It is designed to last one Martian year, or 687 Earth days. Reuters

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