NASA launches super-size Mars rover to red planet

By MARCIA DUNN | November 26, 2011 | 10:11 AM EST

Backdropped by the Atlantic Ocean, the 197-foot-tall United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket rolls toward the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Friday Nov. 25, 2011. Atop the rocket is NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover nicknamed Curiosity enclosed in its payload fairing. Liftoff is planned during a launch window which extends from 10:02 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. EST on Saturday Nov. 26. Curiosity, has 10 science instruments designed to search for signs of life, including methane, and will help determine if the gas is from a biological or geological source. (AP Photo/NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The world's biggest extraterrestrial explorer is on its way to Mars.

NASA on Saturday launched the six-wheeled, one-armed robotic rover, nicknamed Curiosity. An unmanned rocket blasted off with the spacecraft from Cape Canaveral.

The journey to Mars will take 8½ months and cover 354 million miles.

Curiosity weighs a ton and is the size of a car. It's a mobile, nuclear-powered laboratory holding 10 science instruments that will sample Martian soil and rocks, and analyze them right on the spot. There's a drill as well as a stone-zapping laser machine.

Curiosity will spend two years looking for evidence that Mars may once have been — or still is — suitable for microbial life.

The mission costs $2.5 billion.

Thousands of NASA guests converged on Kennedy Space Center for the launch.