As the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, wings its way to the red planet, scientists at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be watching closely.
The Caltech-affiliated program, which is part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is responsible for managing the rover, and scientists there designed, developed and assembled it.
The unmanned Atlas V Rocket carrying Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., early Saturday. Scientists say its 354-million mile trip will take nearly a year; they are expecting Curiosity to land on Mars in August of 2012.
The rover is part of the Mars Science Laboratory, which will pioneer new landing technology when it touches down inside the planet's Gale Crater.
Weighing 2,000 pounds, Curiosity will take samples of the red planet’s soil and rocks, searching for evidence that life could be - or once was - possible on Mars.
As part of its $2.5 billion mission, the rover will search for evidence that microbial life on Mars was once possible, including research to see if the planet contains the chemical ingredients for life.
Curiosity is the size of a car and is equipped with a 7-foot arm with a jackhammer that will be bale to drill into Mars.
The rover’s mission is expected to last two years.