NASA is nearly ready to launch its SUV-size super rover to Mars later this month.
The space agency announced this week that the Mars Science Laboratory, its most advanced mobile robot yet, is set to lift off November 25. Dubbed Curiosity, the rover will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop an Atlas V rocket.
The rover is scheduled to land on Mars in August. Its mission is aimed at determining whether the conditions to support life ever existed on Mars, in preparation for sending humans there.
"Preparations are on track for launching at our first opportunity," said Pete Theisinger, the rover's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "If weather or other factors prevent launching [on November 25], we have more opportunities through December 18."
Curiosity should land near the base of a mountain three miles high and inside a crater. The rover will search for clues as to whether the Red Planet has ever sustained microbial life.
The size of a sport utility vehicle, Curiosity weighs 1 ton and is twice as long and five times heavier than its predecessors, the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity will carry a set of 10 science instruments.
According to NASA, a 7 foot arm on the robot will provide height and different angles for its cameras, along with a laser geared to enable it to study objects from a distance. Onboard tools also include chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors, along with mechanisms to analyse the composition of soil and rock collected using the rover's drill and scoop.
Earlier this year, NASA was forced to cancel plans to add a 3D camera to the super rover because the agency ran out of time to build and test the equipment before launch.
NASA's Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been two of the agency's most successful robotic projects. While Spirit was given up for dead early this year, both rovers worked on the Martian surface for more than six years, far longer than the three months that NASA initially expected them to last.
Opportunity continues its work. Last year, it was upgraded with artificial intelligence software to enable the robot to make some of its own decisions about what rocks or geological formations it should stop and analyse.