NASA's robotic rover Curiosity has begun its long journey to Mars on a mission that the space agency hopes will further its understanding of life in the universe.
The Mars Science Laboratory lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday aboard an Atlas V rocket. Less than an hour after launch, the rover sent back a signal to NASA, reporting that it had successfully separated from the rocket and was flying free on its way to the Red Planet.
Curiosity was launched with the mission of discovering whether life exists or has ever existed, on Mars. It will join the rover Opportunity, which has been working on the planet for more than six years, and will work in preparation for sending humans there.
The new super rover will collect soil and rock samples and analyse them for evidence that the area has, or ever had, environmental conditions favourable to microbial life.
"We are ready to go for landing on the surface of Mars, and we couldn't be happier," said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist. "I think this mission will be a great one. It is an important next step in NASA's overall goal to address the issue of life in the universe."
Curiosity, which is the size of an SUV and equipped with 10 science instruments, is expected to land on Mars in August 2012.
"Science fiction is now science fact," said Doug McCuisition, director of the Mars Exploration Programme at NASA. "We're flying to Mars. We'll get it on the ground... and see what we find."
According to NASA, Curiosity has the most advanced payload of scientific gear, including chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors, ever used on Mars' surface. The payload is more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers.
Curiosity weighs 1 ton and is twice as long and five times heavier than its predecessors. The extra instruments and mobility should be a big help to NASA, which has been down one Mars robot since the rover Spirit, a robotic twin to Opportunity, stopped functioning earlier this year.
NASA has long said that robots will play a critical role in its plans to create a human outpost on Mars or the moon. Robots designed to erect buildings and prepare safe landing sites are expected to arrive before humans. Once the astronauts arrive, the robots are expected to carry payloads and serve as transport vehicles.