[Launch audio: “And liftoff of the Atlas 5 with Curiosity”]
NASA's newest Mars rover blasted off November 26th from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Standing seven feet tall and weighing in at 2,000 pounds, Curiosity dwarfs NASA's previous rovers in both size and scientific prowess.
It's powered by a plutonium fuel source and packs a laser that can vaporize rocks from several feet away to measure their composition. It also carries several high-tech instruments to pick up samples and make definitive identifications of minerals on the Martian surface.
The rover is scheduled to land inside Mars's Gale Crater in August 2012. It will spend nearly two years exploring the sedimentary layers inside Gale Crater, which are thought to preserve an extensive geologic history of Mars.
Curiosity's $2.5-billion mission is designed to examine conditions when water was more abundant on the Red Planet, and to gather information about whether Mars was ever hospitable to life.
But easing a 2,000-pound vehicle onto the surface of another planet is a huge challenge. NASA plans to lower the rover from a hovering, rocket-powered sky crane. If this elaborate scheme works, Curiosity will be off and roving.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]