The nation's next Mars explorer made its way to the launch pad today as NASA pressed ahead with preparations for a planned blastoff later this month aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
Encapsulated in a protective payload fairing, the Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover were hoisted atop the towering rocket at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Atlas V is scheduled to lift off at 10:25 a.m. Nov. 25, propelling the spacecraft on an eight-month journey to the red planet. The launch window that day will extend through 12:08 p.m.
The Mars Science Laboratory is the centerpiece of a $2.5 billion mission aimed at determining whether the fourth planet from the sun is, or ever was, habitable. Its 10 instruments will be used to search for carbonaceous compounds know as "organics."
Life on Earth arises whenever an environment contains water, an energy source, such as the sun, and organic material. Scientists know Mars once was awash with water. The discovery of organics would show the Martian environment could support life -- or could have in the past.
The lab and its Curiosity rover, which is about the size of a small compact car, were prepped for flight in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in the KSC Industrial Area. The spacecraft was transfered to the pad earlier today.
ABOUT THE IMAGE: Click to enlarge the NASA image of the Mars Science Laboratory and its protective nosecone arriving at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Atlas V rocket that will propel the payload into orbit already can be seen inside the Vertical Integration Facility there. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.